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Shimmering Reality: The Metaphysics of Relativity in Mystical Traditions.


Patrick Laude
Copyright Philosophy East and West, 65-2.

It can be argued that what most clearly sets mystical theology apart from
ordinary religious consciousness and rational 1 or apologetic theology is its
treatment of the relationship between the Ultimate Reality and the non-ultimate. In
fact mysticism tends to combine the strictest concept of the Absolute, one that
points to transcending any polarity, duality and distinction, and a vision of relativity
that both denies the reality of the world of manifestation, when considered
independently from its Source, and affirms an essential continuity or unity between
the Ultimate and that which is not in an ultimate sense.
The Absolute is literally ab-solutum, which means that it is unbound,
detached and free. Although most often understood as complete and selfsufficient, and therefore also cause of itself, the Absolute must also and
consequently be approached in terms of its perfect freedom, which is itself a
dimension of its transcendence vis--vis any relationality. In this connection
relationality entails an aspect of obligation or reciprocity by virtue of the
relationships and relations it involves. Therefore, our understanding of
absoluteness as utter freedom immediately brings the central question of this
inquiry to the fore by highlighting the apparent logical impossibility of positing
concurrently the ontological reality of both the Absolute and non-absolute
realities including ourselves. In other words, is the Absolute conceivable side by
side with the existence of a myriad of non-absolute realities given that such a
mode of co-being or co-existence would perforce imply some sort of
relationality between the former and the latter, and thereby run contrary to the
notion of an ab-solutum? It is this question that we would like to ponder in this
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Let us specify from the outset that mystical theology is not irrational even though it highlights the
supra-rational source of spiritual knowledge and the limitations of reason: in fact any mystical theology
makes use of reason when providing doctrinal and theoretical concepts. To be aware of the limitations of
reason does not amount to a disqualification of its power and usefulness within the scope of its
epistemological jurisdiction. Moreover what we call rational theology, even though it is by definition a
rational discourse, depends on the supra-rational data of revelation for its development.

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essay through a liminal survey of some of the most rigorous concepts of the
Absolute provided by a cross-religious spectrum of teachings of mystical theology,
or rather mystical metaphysics. We readily acknowledge that the term mystical
is approximative, possibly even misleading and given to likely misunderstandings.
We consider nonetheless the use of this term suitable as a distinct indication that we
will be considering doctrines and teachings that are not understood by their
proponents as mere conceptual descriptions of Reality, but are also intimately
associated by them to ways of spiritual realization, thereby highlighting the vital
coalescence of epistemology, ontology and soteriology.

Within the manifold tradition of Hinduism the Advaitin or non-dual


perspective of Shankara (788-820 AD) provides a fitting starting point for an
analysis of the ontological status of relativity, or other-than-the-Ultimate, when
characterizing My --which has been variously translated as veil, illusion, art,
wonder or appearance-- as neither real, nor unreal 2 in his Vivekacdmani 3
or Crest Jewel of Discrimination. We will use these perplexing words as keys to argue
that wisdom and mystical traditions, across religious boundaries, tend to assign an
ambiguous ontological status to phenomenal realities as apprehended outside of
the realm of the Ultimate Reality or Recognition. Furthermore, we propose to show
that each of these traditions does emphasize one of the two aforesaid
characterizations in its approach of the mystery of universal metaphysical relativity,
or universal existence: neither being or real, nor non-being or unreal. 4 It bears
specifying that the terms is, real, and being are used alternatively in this essay
2

San pi asan api ubhaytmik no bhinna api abhinn api ubhaytmik no snga pi anahga hi
ubhaytmik no maha dbhuta anirvacanya rp If you ask of its form, it cannot be stated. It is beyond
description. It is neither real nor non-real ; neither is it the mixture of the two. Is it separate from the
tman ? It is neither separate, nor yet non-separate ; nor part of the tman, yet neither can you say it is not
part. It is not the body. It is most wonderful and beyond all description. Sri Sankarcrya, Vivekacdmani, verses 109-111, translated by Svm Turynanda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1991, 46-47.
3
The fact that the attribution of the Vivekacdmani to Shankara has been disputed by scholars is not
directly relevant to our purpose since this text has been, and continues to be, a classical reference for the
perspective of Advaita.
4
We need to acknowledge that Shankara adds a third negation to these two: My is neither real, nor
unreal, nor both, or a mixture of two. In the limits of this essay we will only touch marginally and as it
were incidentally upon this third negative characterization, although we do intend to approach this complex
third exclusion more directly in a future essay.

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without significant difference in meaning to imply ontological substantiality and
permanence. The term existence will sometimes be understood in a similar sense,
sometimes more technically with the specific nuance of the Latin exsistere, from eksistere which connotes manifestation as in phenomenon or a coming into being out
of nothingness that is contingent upon a higher existentiating agency. In other
words being and real or reality will point to ontological substance, and
existence to phenomenal manifestation. We will also keep to the principle that
such emphases do not amount to exclusive doctrinal propositions since mystical
theologies should not be understood as philosophical systems rationally denoting
realities, but rather as symbolic approaches by way of conceptual representations
intended to open the mind to a spiritual, existential, experiential realization or
assimilation of Reality. In other words, some teachings lay emphasis on the not
real dimension of relativity, while others stress its being not unreal, and others
still both its being not real and not unreal; but at any rate such conceptual
characterizations can never be totally exclusive of their counterpart positions since
they tend to suggest ontological aspects and epistemological points-of-views, being
thereby akin to the Jain principle of Anekntavda, or limitless plurality of
perspectives.5 The need to consider these perspectives in a non-exclusive fashion
stems from their implying a gap between their doctrinal formulations and the
ontological and existential realities they denote.
Dispelling Appearance.
The first approach of metaphysical relativity consists in predicating it
primarily as not real. Among all the expressions of this approach, two of the most
powerfully suggestive are no doubt Shankaras Advaita and Ngrjunas Mahayanic
Mdhyamaka. Two words of caution are in order before we move further: first, it
bears stressing from the outset that these two doctrines are traditionally at odds on
5

Anekntavda may be translated as the non-one-sided or many-sided doctrine, or the doctrine of


many-sidedness () Anekntavda is an ontological doctrine. Its fundamental claim, as it eventually came
to be understood by the tradition, is that all existent entities have infinite attributes. () The apparent
contradictions that our perceptions of reality involve continuity and change, emergence and perishing,
permanence and flux, identity and difference reflect the interdependent, relationally constituted nature of
things. Reality is a synthesis of opposites. Jeffery D. Long, Jainism: An Introduction, I.B. Tauris: London,
New York, 2009, 141.

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fundamental points touching upon their respective understandings of Ultimate
Reality, and secondly they both can be read as we will see later and as we have
already intimatedin a way that qualifies their overall non-realism. While
Shankaras perspective is a priori epistemological, in the sense that its chief concern
is to dispel ignorance or avidy to reveal the true nature of being and consciousness,
Ngrjunas perspective can be deemed to be primarily soteriological since its
ontology chiefly responds to the central question of Buddhism, i.e. suffering and the
way to free oneself from it. This being said, it is in fact nearly impossible, in both
cases, to disconnect epistemology, soteriology and metaphysics or ontology: as we
will see Shankara can at times approach the problem of My in onto-cosmological
terms, and Ngrjunas concepts of emptiness and co-dependent origination are
intrinsically connected to ontological and epistemological stances that are aligned
with a spiritual intent. 6
As aforementioned, metaphysical relativity is, in Advaita Vednta, primarily
identified with My. Now My is most often approached by Shankara as an
epistemological phenomenon of superimposition upon Reality. In other words
My is that which makes us mistake the rope for the snake. 7 It is a principle of
distortion of Reality that stems from ones inability to recognize Reality as it is, that
is as the non-dual Self or tman. On the one hand, My is the epistemological fruit
of a false identification of the Self with the body, on the other hand it is My itself,
or more specifically tamas --the lowest, most opaque of the three cosmological
elements that enter into the composition of Mys world of relativity, that is
constitutional of delusion as such:
The power of tamas is a veiling power. It makes things appear to be other
than what they are. It is this which is the original cause of an individuals
transmigration and is the cause of the origination of the action of the

All of Ngrjunas works are broadly soteriological in nature: he is trying to break the habit of reification
that is at the root of grasping and craving and hence all suffering. Richard H. Jones, Ngrjuna:
Buddhisms Most Important Philosopher, New York, 2010, 135.
7
Cf. Arvind Sharma, The Rope and the Snake: Metaphorical Exploration of Advaita Vedanta, Manohar,
1997.

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projecting power. 8
It must be noted, furthermore, that the ontological status of My is
incomprehensible: She is most strange. Her nature is inexplicable, to use
Shankaras words. 9 My is fundamentally the unintelligible, and this lack of
intelligibility is a function of the obscurity or uncertainty of its origin, as well as
being bound to the undecidability of its ontological status. Although My is most
often not accounted for in terms of creation or emanation, since it is an inexplicable
wonder, some Advaitin authoritative texts do relate My to a creative process on
the part of the Lord. 10 In such cases, My tends to be identified with ll, or the
divine sport or play that symbolizes creation. In Shankaras Dakimrti Stotra,
for example, we read that Isvara amuses Himself assuming, of His own accord, the
forms of worshipper and the worshipped, of teacher and disciple, of master and
servant, and so on. 11 Inasmuch as these dualities pertain to My, the latter may be
read to be implicitly ascribed to the Lord, or to the Personal God, as its Originator. In
fact the very consideration of the Lord entails a duality, or a relationship between
the One Lord and the multiplicity that relates to Him.12 This deluding duality and
multiplicity that is in the very nature of My is sometimes compared by Advaitin
authors to a fishing net that expands or contracts depending upon the will of the
8

The Vivekacmai of akarcrya Bhagavatpda: an introduction and translation by John A. Grimes,


akarcrya, Ashgate: Aldershot, Hants and Burlington, Vermont, 2004, 113. Taking this world as a
tree, the seed of this tree of the world is tamas. Vivekacdmani, Turynanda, 64. Tamas is the third of
the gunascosmological strings with which the entire relative realm, including the Divine Being or
Saguna Brahman, is woven-- the two others being sattva and rajas. Sattva corresponds to light, ascension
and purity, rajas to fire, desire and passion and tamas to heaviness, obscurity and ignorance. The Bhagavad
Gt, by contrast with the Vivekacdmani, considers all of the three gunas to be principles of delusion:
All this universe is deluded by these three states of being/ Composed of the qualities./It does not recognize
Me,/ Who am higher than these, and eternal. (The Bhagavad Gt, translated by Winthrop Sargeant, State
University of New York Press: Albany, 1994, VII, 13, 331.)
9
Vivekacdmani, Turynanda, 49.
10
Although Advaitin writers most often refrain from treating My in terms of creation by or from tman,
this is not the case of the Upanisads, which frequently refer to Brahman as creator: Unlike Advaita
commentators, the Upanisads are not reticent about brahman as the creator and are not hesitant to suggest
desire and purpose. Aitareya Upanisads (1.1), for example, begins with the act of creation. In the
beginning this world was the self (tman), one alone, and there was no other being at all that blinked an
eye. He thought to himself: --Let me create the worlds. Anantanand Rambachan, The Advaita
Worldview. God, World, and Humanity, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006, 92.
11
Sri Shankaracharya, Dakimrti Stotra, translated by Alladi Mahadeva Sastry, Samata Books :
Chennai, 152.
12
The Sruti says : By My, Siva became two birds always associated together ; the One, clinging to the
one unborn (Prakriti), became many as it were. Dakimrti Stotra, VII-27, 158.

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Lord. The fishing net is to be understood here as a power of allure and delusion, and
its contraction to a divine grace, so that My is in such cases considered as being
under the control of a sometimes misguiding -i.e. expanding My--, sometimes
liberating i.e. contracting My-- Lord . 13 However, the main focus of Advaita is
not on the origin or cause of My, which is in a way an ever open question, but
rather on its end, or its being dispelled by knowledge. It could actually be said that
the only fully satisfactory definition of My is to found in the words that which
can be nullified, or to use Eliot Deutschs terminology that which can be subrated
by other experience. 14 In other words, My is not as much definable as it is
recognizable by and through its ontological and spiritual reduction, or else My
is known by being dispelled. My as appearance has no meaning independently
from Reality which, in Advaita Vednta, is none other than the Supreme Divine
Selfhood, or tman. So it is precisely because My is nullified by knowledge of
tman, 15 and because this nullification is in fact the only way of knowing My for
what it is. If there is a way to know the unknowable, undefinable, inexplicable
My it is in fact through the realization of tman. It is this very fact that allows us
to consider Advaita Vednta as a set of metaphysical doctrines that lay emphasis on
the non-real character of that which is not the Ultimate, notwithstanding the
ontologically undecidable and ambiguous nature of My. The latter is best
described by Shankara in the following passage: It is not non-existent, because it
appears; neither is it existent, because it is nullified. 16 Such terms would seem to
contradict our characterization of Advaita Vednta as a perspective emphasizing the
non-reality of universal relativity, since they deny both the non-existent and

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My, the binding capacity of Hari, and the generator of things external and internal, spreads out like
the net of the fisherman, in respect of ignorant jvas, and contracts (in the case of jvas with knowledge)
through the will of the Lord. Be this my real or illusory, (but) contraction and the opposite (expansion)
are natural (therefore); and, thus, too (say some). In Sarvajtmans Samksepasrraka, Eliot Deutsch and
Rohit Dalvi, editors, The Essential Vednta, Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, 2004, 344.
14
Reality is that which cannot be subrated by any other experiences. () Appearance is that which can
be subrated by other experience. () Unreality is that which neither can nor cannot be subrated by other
experience. Eliot Deutsch, Advaita Vednta : A Philosophical Reconstruction, The University Press of
Hawaii : Honolulu, 1969, p18-24. On the basis of such epistemological distinctions, My is clearly to be
identified with appearance.
15
Dakimrti Stotra, VII-12, 153.
16
Dakimrti Stotra, VII-13, 154.

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existent aspects of My. However, it is quite clear that the negation of the nonexistent nature of My is methodologically and epistemologically less important
than the negation of its existence. In fact, or in practice, the state of
epistemological and spiritual delusion from which the Advaitin practitioner is called
to awaken is not so much connected to the need to recognize the non-nonexistence of My as it is to the necessity of discerning its non-existence. If it were
not so, My could not be refered symbolically by Shankara, for example, as a
harlot whose coquetry allures only those who do not make use of discerning
scrutiny (viveka). 17 It is clearly the seductively non-real aspect of My that serves
as point of reference for the Advaitin discriminating meditation toward deliverance,
especially when considering the ability of My to shortchange the human mind in
posing as reality.
Mdhyamaka Buddhism, or the Middle Way initiated by the Indian
Patriarch of Mahyna, Ngrjuna (2nd and 3rd Century AD) , is no less adamant
than Advaita in asserting the non-essentiality or non-self-nature of what we
have been refering to as metaphysical relativity. In fact, the ultimate lack of
substance of phenomena is extended by Ngrjuna to everything, including the Self,
in concordance with the Buddhist teaching of anatta or no-self. In this respect, it
could be argued that Ngrjuna emphasizes further than Advaita the unreal
character of phenomena in the sense that no absolute Selfhood is posited by him
that would lend some reality to the latter. One of the fundamental reasons for this
state of affairs lies in that, from a Buddhist point-of-view, metaphysics is determined
by soteriology, and the concern for doctrinal conceptualization or perspective
superseded by a focus on method. In other terms, the spiritual and moral reality of
suffering is connected to craving, and craving is itself a function of an ignorance of
the status of reality. The whole issue revolves, therefore, around an erroneous
notion of the substantiality or essence of phenomena and the self. The
fundamental intent of Ngrjuna, therefore, is to deny the own being (svabhva) 18
17

Dakimrti Stotra, VII-16, 155.


The term svabhva (literally own nature) can be closely approximated by the notion of essence.
David Kalupahana translates it as inherent nature (cf. Buddhist Philosphy: A Historical Analysis,
18

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of the latter, thereby freeing consciousness from its attachment to the sources of
delusion (moha) and suffering. The Nagarjunian rejection of self-existence, own
being or inherent essence is not to be equated, however, with an utter negation
of the reality or existence of phenomena. It simply means, as we will discuss
further, that there is no such thing, for Ngrjuna, as an inherent, essential, timeless
nature of phenomena that would define them as discrete entities.
What has just been specified indicates that the most proper way to
characterize the ontological status of phenomena consists in denying both that they
are existent and that they are non-existent, hence the characterization of
Mdhyamaka as Middle Way. This Middle Way is defined in contradistinction with
two metaphysical pitfalls which are often refered to, in Buddhist commentaries, as
eternalism and nihilism. Eternalism refers to the status of essences as
independent from time and change, whereas nihilism is simply the negation of any
existence whatsoever:
Exists implies grasping after eternalism. Does not exist implies the
philosophy of annihilation. Therefore, a discerning person should not rely
upon either existence or non-existence.19
According to Candrakrti, a major seventh-century disciple and commentator of
Ngrjuna, a lack of insightful and contemplative intelligence may result in either of
two errors, with respect to the doctrine of emptiness: The first is a confusion
between emptiness and nothingness, or nyat and abhva. This is the basis for the
common Western misinterpretations of Buddhism as a form of pessimism, or else
nihilism. The second erroneous interpretation of nyat consists, in Guy Bugaults
terms, in hypostasizing it, misleading one thereby into a mental fixation that

University of Hawaii Press, 1976, 27). Christian Lindtner (Master of Wisdom. Writings of the Buddhist
Master Ngrjuna, Dharma Publishing, 1986-1997) translates it by own being, while Jay Garfield prefers
to render it as self-nature: When a Mdhyamika philosopher says of a table that it is empty, that
assertion by itself is incomplete. It invites the question, empty of what? And the answer is, empty of
inherent existence, or self-nature, or in more Western terms, essence. Now, to say that the table is empty is
hence simply to say that it lacks essence and importantly not to say that it is completely nonexistent. Jay
L. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Oxford University Press, 1995, 89
19
Ngrjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way - Mlamadhyamakakrik, translated by David J.
Kalupahana, SUNY Press, 1986, 234.

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prevents one from recognizing emptiness. 20 Let us note, in this connection, that the
characterization of phenomena as neither existent nor non-existent appears as
analogous, but not identical, to the Advaitin status of My as neither real nor
unreal. A closer examination shows that the matter is both ontological and
epistemological in Mdhyamaka and Advaita alike, but with a definitely different
emphasis in each case. Here is a passage from Ngrjuna that epitomizes the
Mdhyamaka outlook and will help us bring it into sharp contrast with Advaita:
When something is not related to anything, how then can that thing exist?
For example, when it is not related to long, how can short exist?
When there is existence there is non-existence, as there is short when there
is long. Since there is existence when there is non-existence, each of the two
does not exist. 21
As it appears plainly in the previous passage, the refutation of both existence and
non-existence is entirely connected to relationality, relativity, and the duality and
multiplicity they entail. Without relation there is no existence because existence is
empirically and ontologically relational, and always implies non-existence, the same
holding true in return for non-existence in regard to existence. For Ngrjuna, the
refutation of existence and non-existence is therefore founded both on ontological
relationality and epistemological and linguistic relativity. There is nothing that lies
outside the range of this relativity, and therefore everything is empty, neither
existent nor non-existent. 22
The originality of Ngrjunas perspective is to connect nirvna to an
existential recognition of the emptiness of all phenomena, without which the
blowing out of bound, deluded and alienated consciousness would be impossible.
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20

In this view, the origin and cessation of suffering, that lies at the core of the

A wrongly perceived emptiness ruins a person of meager intelligence. It is like a snake that is wrongly
grasped or knowledge that is wrongly cultivated. Ngrjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way Mlamadhyamakakrik, translarted by David J. Kalupahana, SUNY Press, 1986, 335. Cf. also,
Ngrjuna, Stances du milieu par excellence (Madhyamaka-kriks), translated, introduced and annotated
by Guy Bugault, Paris : Gallimard, 2002, 309.
21
Ibid., 12-13, 17.
22
This has implications on the use of language in the sense that the exclusion of both existence and nonexistence leaves us with a clear sense of the limitations of linguistic categories, thereby opening the way to
a transcending of conceptual crystallizations.
23
This is in critical reaction to Abhidharma Buddhists who postulated a continuity of the dharmas and their
nature or svabhva.

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Buddhist intuition of reality, are accounted for in terms of emptiness, which is
none other than dependent co-origination or relative conditioning,
prattyasamutpda.24 Accordingly, the direct methodical implication of
prattyasamutpda appears on an existential level when refered to the central focus
of Buddhism, i.e. suffering. As is well-known, the latter is conceived as the result of a
chain of conditioning that begins with ignorance and ends with birth and the
manifold limitations and frustrations it entails:
And what is dependent co-arising? From ignorance as a requisite condition
come fabrications. From fabrications as a requisite condition comes
consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes nameand-form. From name-and-form as a requisite condition come the six sense
media. From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact.
From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a
requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition
comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite
condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes
birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging and death, sorrow,
lamentation, pain, distress, and despair come into play. Such is the
origination of this entire mass of stress and suffering. 25
The end of ignorance, first link of this chain, is none other than the cessation of the
delusion of ontological causality or arising that makes substances out of objects
of experience. This cessation is the realization that there is in reality no arising and
no ceasing. The doctrine of dependent co-origination is therefore intimately bound
to the practical goal of the Buddhas teachings, which is the eradication of suffering.
In other words, prattyasamutpda teaches that the above chain should not be
understood as a sequence of causal links, since its doctrine reveals, through
meditative intuition, the non-substantiality and emptiness of the various links

24

One of the most famous classical statements of prattyasamutpda teaches that nothing is caused by
itself, by another, by itself and another, and by nothing: No existents whatsoever are evident anywhere
that are arisen from themselves, from another, from both, or from a non-cause. Kalupahana, 105.
These four negations amount to an affirmation of the relative conditioning of all beings. In summary
this fondational passage amounts to 1) the negation of a self-caused cause as God or causa sui that would
be independent from relations, 2) the idea that a cause would be antecedent in relation to its effect and
therefore independent from it, quod absit, and 3) the idea of a relationship with nothing, which is an
impossibility.
25
The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Samyutta Nikya, translated from the Pli
by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2000, 12 Nidnasamyutta 1(1), 533.

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themselves, and in fact of the whole chain of phenomena. Realizing nirvna means
realizing the truth of prattyasamutpda. This realization means the recognition of
the unsubstantiality of suffering itself, without which recognition there would not
be any way out of the latter into nirvna. 26
To sum up our previous reflections, Prattyasamutpda could be succinctly
outlined as follows. Everything whatsoever is relational, and therefore relative and
contingent, that is neither ontologically independent nor metaphysically necessary.
Nothing, therefore, can be legitimately substantialized, objectified, reified, nor even
quite adequately verbalized. Nothing is a self-existent substance ontologically
separated from other existents, nothing is an object independent from a subject,
nothing is a thing if by thing is meant a reality defined by a substance and
circumscribed by it.
Paradoxes of Reality and Non-Reality: Appearance and Emptiness
What precedes is indicative of a sharp contrast between Mdhyamaka
emptiness and the relativity of the Advaitic My which is, as we have seen,
revealed by That which is not relative, or tman. In fact, My is not real because it
is not tman, but it is in a sense-- not unreal because there is only tman, and
tman is Reality as such. It is important to note, in this connection, the way in which
the not-real aspect of other-than-the-Ultimate is qualified in Shankaras
Advaita. This is illustrated by the onto-cosmological dimensions of Shankaras
doctrine of My, and more specifically the doctrine of the gunas, upon which we
touched earlier. The gunas are the three cosmological principles known as tamas,
rajas and sattva. Now, it is quite clear that as cosmological principles these three
gunas belong to My since the cosmos pertains to the latter. However it appears
that the principles of inertia and passion respectively epitomized by tamas and rajas
are not to be placed on the same ontological level as the ascending quality of sattva,
which is luminous, pure and Reality-centered. Therefore, sattva is like a seed or a
trace of the Real in the non-real, and it is as such not unreal. Shankara writes:
26

Ngrjuna considers that no nirvna would be possible if one were to posit the reality of essences. If
all this is non-empty, there exists neither arising nor ceasing, [As such,] through relinquishing and ceasing
of what does ne expect freedom? Mlamadhyamakakrik, 25:2, Kalupahana, 356.

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The property of tamas is to cover, as scattering is the property of rajas. It
makes things appear to be what they are not, and that is the cause of
bondage, and even of decentralization [projection]. (113) () Pure sattva is
blissfulness, realization of Self, supreme peace of attainment, cheerfulness,
and an abiding quality in the Self, by which one becomes ever blissful.27
The preceding quotes make it plain that one can distinguish, within relativity, levels
of reality that could be approximately referred to as higher My and lower
My. The higher My, as epitomized by the guna sattva provides us with a
picture of relativity in which the perspective of My as not real is largely
counterbalanced by the point of view of My not being unreal. This means that
My is in a certain sense a manifestation of tman, although the term
manifestation would normally not be satisfactorily applicable in the context of
Advaita inasmuch as the main Advaitin emphasis lies upon My as an
epistemological obstacle to metaphysical recognition, rather than as positive
projection of tman.
In contradistinction with Advaita, the perspective of Mdhyamaka is less
prone to acknowledge this secondary not unreal dimension of relativity, and more
inclined to emphasize more exclusively its not real aspect by ignoring qualitative
distinctions within the context of prattyasamutpda. There are three ways,
however, in which one must qualify this statement. First, as we have mentioned,
phenomena are no less non-existent than existent. Secondly Mdhyamaka
Buddhism makes use of a concept of reality, or tattva, which, without being the
equivalent of the concept of Self, or tman, is nevertheless denotative of truth or
things as they are. In this context, Mdhyamaka draws a very clear distinction
between svabhva, which is an ontological notion, and tattva, which pertains
primarily to epistemology. The latter refers to reality as it is, in its truth, but this
reality is not to be identified with existence as commonly understood, nor with nonexistence either: its status transcends the duality of existence and non-existence.
Tattva is the object of a cognition without an object 28 in the sense that it is a
27

Viveka-cdmani, p 49 and 52.


Christian Lindtner, Master of Wisdom. Writings of the Buddhist Master Ngrjuna, Dharma Publishing,
1986-1997, xx.
28

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recognition of the emptiness of all objects, and of the subject itself as dependent
upon an object. Non-duality is here radicalized to the point of abolishing not only
the duality of subject and object, as in Advaita, but even the very terms of the
duality. This consciousness-without-an-object, to make use of Franklin MerrellWolffs expression, or non-dual wisdom, Advayajna, coincides with the
recognition of tattva.
The recognition of tattva is none other than the goal of Buddhism: it points
to the end of the Buddhist wayfaring as leading from suffering, dukkha, to a state of
blowing out of the causes of suffering, nirvna. But at the same time, in its ultimate
truth, it denies the essential reality of the path and its goal. This is the supreme
spiritual paradox of Mdhyamaka that introduces us to the third qualification of
our argument concerning the Mdhyamaka non-recognition of the not unreal
aspect of phenomena. This paradox is most directly expressed by Ngrjuna in his
Mlamadhyamakakrik:
The Buddha did not teach the appeasement of all objects, the appeasement of
obsession, and the auspicious as some thing to some one at some place. 29
The meaning of this prima facie perplexing statement makes full sense when refered
to the fundamental distinction between two kinds of truth; this is the doctrine of
satyadvayavibhga. Ngrjuna articulates the distinction between conventional
truth (sammuti-sacca or vohra-sacca) and ultimate truth (paramattha-sacca) as
follows:
The teaching of the doctrine by the Buddhas is based upon two truths: truth
relating to worldly conventions and truth in terms of ultimate fruit.
Those who do not understand the distinction between these two truths do
not understand the profund truth embodied in the Buuddhas message.
Without relying upon convention, the ultimate fruit is not taught. Without
understanding the ultimate fruit, freedom is not attained. 30
The truth, in an ultimate sense, is none other than emptiness or co-dependent
origination. However, the teachings of the Buddhas need to make use of
conventional truth in order to lead mankind toward the ultimate truth. In that sense
29
30

Mlamadhyamakakrik, 25: 24. Kalupahana, 369.


Mlamadhyamakakrik, 24: 8,9,10. Kalupahana, 331-333.

14
conventional truth is none other than the upya, or the expedient mean par
excellence, through which people may be brought up to ultimate reality. The

The paramount distinction between teaching and ultimate fruit is akin to that
between doctrine and method, or that between intellectual cognition and
spiritual recognition. Conventional truth is both a necessity in terms of teaching and
a potential impediment in terms of recognition.31 The latter aspect appears in the
fact that conventional truth unknowingly relies on linguistic phenomena that
pertain to what the Mdhyamaka tradition refers to as prajaptir updya, which is
understood by most commentators as dependent designations. A radical
interpretation of this concept, in the wake of Candrakrti, sees all designations as not
related in any essential way to objects, but as constituting, rather, a conventional
network of metaphorical modes of cognitive perception, that are ultimately illusory.
This view implies that emptiness itself as a concept is necessarily a dependent and
provisional designation and therefore itself empty. Such an understanding allows fr
a maximal, and indeed radical, differentiation between emptiness as such and the
doctrine of emptiness, the latter being subsumed under the realm of conventional
truth, the former denoting ultimate truth. When other commentators and
translators have resisted such an understanding of the concept of co-dependent
origination as pure dependent designation they have done so on account of its
effectiveness in leading to spiritual recognition, an effectiveness that seems
incompatible with pure emptiness and utter lack of referentiality. 32 Douglas Berger
has thus argued, against the emptiness of all uses of language as implying being, in
31

This is analogous, incidentally, to Shankaras distinction between the real and figurative senses of
tmans binding by My: That tman does acts, that He bound by them, and that He is released from
them, is true only in a figurative sense; it is a mere illusion. Dakimrti Stotra, VIII-21 156.
32
If the concepts conditioned co-arising and emptiness don't refer at all to the way the world works, if
impermanence, birth-and-death, ignorance, and desirous attachment are not in fact features of
unenlightened human existence, then why would the Buddha even bother to claim that they are at the root
of our suffering and point toward an effective solution ? Why again, in this case, would Mahyna
Buddhists bother to argue against theories that espouse some notion of svabhva in the first place, since, if
no words refer to reality anyway, there would seem to be nothing about an accurate understanding of
human existence at stake in the dispute? If the answer is that the conventional meaning of conditioned coarising is a more effective means of bringing about enlightenment, then we would seem entitled to ask why
it is so ? Douglas L. Berger, A Reply to Garfield and Westerhoff on "Acquiring Emptiness"
Philosophy East and West - Volume 61, Number 2, April 2011, p. 369.

15
favour of a distinction between two kinds of linguistic practices, one assuming being
and the other not. The latter is the language of upya which makes it possible to
refer to the emptiness of reality through its own referential transparence, as it
were, that is without falling into a kind of self-substantalization. In this sense, the
most effective upya is the one that invites us not to treat it as an independent
substance. Regardless of whether one universalizes the view that designations are
co-dependently arisen and empty or one leaves room for a conventional language
adequate to convey the truth of emptiness, epistemological truth needs be equated
with that which produces positive outcomes or recognition. 33
As the previous pages have intimated, emptiness is not the essence of
realities in the sense in which a transcendent source, or a transcendent paradigm of
their being would, but it is so if we understand by essence the fundamental
structure of reality: We state that whatever is dependent arising, that is
emptiness. 34 This explanation, for Buddhists, is not the recognition of a Supreme
Object, because no object can be supreme in the sense of being independent from
reciprocal conditioning in its being. It is not the recognition of a Substantial Subject
either, since no subject is without being relational to an object upon which it
depends to be a subject. For Ngrjuna, the position of a Subject or Self as tman,
necessarily gives, or lends, some substantial existence to all phenomena. This is so
because the position of an tman that would be independent, as it were, from codependent origination, is incompatible with the latter and therefore implies the selfsubstantiality of everything else. To postulate a Self is to substantialize not only the
Self but also, by the same token, everything else through and by Its being immanent

33

For the Buddha, language derives its "meaning" (attha) when it is able to produce results (attha), and
thus what is true (bhuta, taccha) is that which bears results (attha- samhita). The Buddha did not recognize
anything that is false to be productive of results Truth in this sense can be equated with meaningful"
language.Thus, linguistic expressions that imply permanence and annihilation would be "meaningless" (anattha) in that they do not communicate anything that in experience (dhamma) , where experience is
understood in terms of the felt results (attha) rather than in terms of an indefinable ultimate
reality. Mlamadhyamakakrik of Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way, translated by David
J. Kaupahana, Motilal Barnasidass, Delhi, p.19. Some more skillful, more illuminating constructions
might just be better in bringng us to see that no construction is true. That is the nature of upya. Jay L.
Garfield and Jan Westerhoff, Acquiring the Notion of a Dependent Designation : A Response to Douglas
L. Berger. Philosophy East and West, Volume 61, Number 2, April 2011, p. 367.
34
Mlamadhyamakakrik, 24 :18, Kalupahana 339.

16
to everything that is not unreal. In that sense, Ngrjuna goes a step further than
Advaitin metaphysics in stressing the non-reality of phenomena. By excluding the
consideration of a reality that would be exempt from prattyasamutpda,
Ngrjuna asserts an utter and fundamental emphasis on the conditioned
unsubstantiality of everything to which the mind could cling.
The all-encompassing validity of prattyasamutpda must lead us to ponder
its meaning with respect to the ontological status of nirvna itself; it must be
considered, in particular, whether prattyasamutpda does not deprive nirvna of
any ultimate reality and meaning, thereby betraying a fundamental incompatibility
with the ultimate goal of Buddhism itself, as some of Ngrjunas opponents have
argued. Early Buddhist teachings from the Abhidharma canon 35 point to a nirvnic
mode of being from the vantage point of which the relatively conditioned can be
perceived as such, without being itself relatively conditioned, but on the contrary
literally unconditioned. This is expressed by one of the most famous canonical Pali
passages:
There exists, monks, that which is unborn, that which is unbecome, that
which is uncreated, that which is unconditioned. For if there were not,
monks, that which is uncreated, that which is unconditioned, there would not
be made known here the escape from that which is born, from that which is
become, from that which is created, from that which is conditioned. Yet since
there exists, monks, that which is unborn, that which is unbecome, that
which is uncreated, that which is unconditioned, there is therefore made
known the escape from that which is born, from that which is become, from
that which is created, from that which is conditioned." 36
Thus, there is a sense in which the not unreal, the unbecome, the unborn,
which is transcendent to the unreal, the become and the born is also
mysteriously immanent to them, without which the validity and effectiveness of the
path itself would be called into question. Mahyna Buddhism has drawn the
ultimate conclusions from this principle in the paradoxical recognition that nirvna
is samsra and samsra is nirvna, or that the unbecome is the become and the
35

Abhidharma texts, dating back as early as the 3rd century B.C, include abstracts of doctrinal elements
from the earlier stras, the scriptures that are largely comprised of words of the Buddha.
36
Udna, Khuddakanikya, Suttapiaka. Quoted in Joseph Walser, Ngrjuna in context: Mahyna
Buddhism and early Indian culture, Columbia University Press, 2005, 177.

17
become is the unbecome, or else transcendence is immanence and immanence is
transcendence. In this perspective, however, the transcendent is neither
apprehended as a supreme Object (God) nor as an ultimate Subject (tman). It is
neither Object nor Substance: Neither an ob-ject, that is an element of a cognitive
duality, nor a sub-stance, i.e. a reality that would be independent from co-dependent
relationality by being as it were sub-jacent to it. In Ngrjunas thought,
transcendence is envisaged as immanent in that the object of recognition or
ultimate truth is the very structure of an experienced reality. The empirical
problem, for Buddhists, is a subjective problem, or how to stop the mental process
that inherently objectifies and substantializes, and is, thereby, a source of craving
and suffering. The Buddhist response is that this is only possible through negation,
or rather through the negation of negation --since conditioned consciousness is a
negation of the unconditioned, that opens access to an adequate perception of
reality.37
The Unity of Reality
By contrast with the previously examined metaphysical accounts of relativity, we
would like to review and analyze, in a second section of this essay, the ways in
which some major and influential forms of mystical theology are characterized by
an emphasis on the not unreal dimension of that which is not the Ultimate Reality.
In doing so, our objective will not merely be to draw a contrast with the Advaita and
Mdhyamaka perspectives, but also to look into some of the theoretical and
spiritual implications of this contrast. In order to do so, we will focus on the aivite
perspective of Abhinavagupta (ca 950-1020 AD) and some other authoritative
figures and texts of the non-dualistic Tantric tradition on the one hand, and on the

37

In parallel, there needs not be a subject, the latter being necessarily caught into the net of a relationship
with an object and the two-fold substantialization that ensues. However, because objectification and
substantialization are spiritual possibilities, and perhaps even necessities on some level, we find, in later
Mahyna, an objectification of nirvna as Amida, the Other, in Jodo Shin, and a substantialization of
nirvna as Buddha-Nature or Buddha-dhtu in the Mahyna Mahparinirvna Stra and later, among
other schools, in Zen. One may infer from these developments that it may be too arduous for most
practitioners to keep to the principles of emptiness and conditioned co-origination. It bears stressing,
however, that the objectification that we are considering here is in a sense abstracted from a subject,
at least efficiently or operatively, since the whole stress is on tariki, or the Power of the Other, while the
kind of substantialization at stake in Buddha-dhtu is still vacuity of forms.

18
other hand on the doctrine of the Unity of Being (wahdat al-wujd) exemplified by
Sufi masters of gnosis such as Ibn Arab (1167-1240) and Abd-al-Karm al-Jl
(1366-1424). It is important to recognize, as a starting point, that both perspectives
are focused, a priori, on the Divine Reality as it is envisaged respectively by the
Hindu aivite and Islamic traditions. In this context, iva and Allh notwithstandng
the profound contextual differences that shape their reality-- are considered on the
level of the Personal Divinity refered to in Hindu and Islamic scriptures as well in
devotional practices, but also on the level of the Divine Essence as such, which both
traditions understand to lie beyond all determinations, qualities and actions,
including the personal dimension of Divinity. Mystical metaphysicians hailing from
these traditions, such as Abhinavagupta and Ibn Arab, have in fact no difficulty
whatsoever envisaging iva and Allh on these two distinct ontological levels. 38
Hence, aivism considers iva as Paramaiva, or Ultimate Reality, and as such, It is
non-relational consciousness. 39 At the same time, each and every aivite treatise
begins with words of dedication and worship to iva, and the latter has been the
focus of devotional adoration on the part of those Hindus who made him the more
and more exclusive object of religious fervor.40 Similarly, Allh is both the Personal
Deity who speaks in and through the Qurn, and the super-ontological Essence
(dht) that is both boundless and unknowable. Jl clearly characterizes the latter as
follows:
Know that the Essence (adh-dht) signifies the Absolute Being in its state of
being stripped of all connection, relation, assignation and aspect. (...) This is
the pure Essence in which are manifested neither Names nor Attributes nor

38

This must be qualified by the fact that the Quranic context of definition of Allh is much less ambiguous,
or much less fluid, than that of iva.
39
Jaideva Singhs Introduction to iva Stras The Yoga of Supreme Identity, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass,
1979, xix.
40
There are simply too many large gaps in the sequence that leads from the Mohenjo-Dara Proto-iva
through the Vedic Rudra, the Yajur Vedic atarudrya, the Rudra-iva of the vetvatara Upanisad, the
astamrt and pacavaktra of the Purnic iva, and the notions of early sectarian groups such as the
Pupatas, to the increasingly complex theologies of Siva in different gamic revelations that finally result,
in one branch of the process, in the concept of iva as taught by Abhinavagupta. What we do know of this
process is that iva, from being one in a pantheon of divinities, increasingly became the focus of sectarian
groups who worshipped him exclusively. Paul Eduardo Muller-Ortega, The Triadic Heart of iva,
Albany: State University of New York, 1989, 26.

19
relations nor connections nor anything else. 41
This passage marks without any ambiguity the distinction between the Divine
Essence and the Personal God as comprised of aspects and involved in relationships.
Two general conclusions may be drawn from the preceding remarks: first, aivism
and Sufism present us with perspectives that are centered a priori on the objective
Reality of the Divine rather than being primarily focused on the subjective need for
deliverance or freedom from suffering ---in other words they begin with Gods
fullness rather than mans lack; secondly, their capacity to envisage the Divine both
as unconditionally absolute and personally engaged allow them to recognize the
Divine Presence both in its ontological immanence and creativity as flowing from its
own infinite Essence, as well as in its revelatory and devotional relationality. Now
both dimensions ascribe a significant coefficient of reality to the relative realm,
since relationality and creativity presuppose a degree of ontological reality on the
part of the latter. Furthermore, let us note that the aforestated regard for
immanence is symbolically and suggestively marked by the fact that both
perspectives make a significant use of the image of the relationship between the
ocean and its waves, as a representation of the relationship between the Ultimate
and the non-Ultimate, or the Absolute and the relative. In Abhivaguptas
metaphysical account, the Supreme Self is equated to the ocean of consciousness
(sindhu, ambhonidhi, samdudra), the waves (rmi) of which are the vibrations
(spanda) of consciousness that constitute finite reality. Describing the latter,
Abhinavagupta writes:
For that vibration, which is a slight motion of a special kind, a unique
vibrating light, is the wave of the ocean of consciousness, without which
there is no consciousness at all. For the character of the ocean is that it is
sometimes filled with waves and sometimes waveless. This consciousness is
the essence of all. 42

41

Abd al-Karm al-Jl, Universal Man, extracts translated with commentary by Titus Burckhardt,
Roxburgh, Scotland: Beshara Publications, 1983, 57.
42
Tantrloka, 4.184-186a, in Paul-Eduardo Muller-Ortega, The Triadic Heart of iva, Albany : State
University of New York Press, 1989, 146. It is the powers of the Self (svasakti) that, emerging from the
ocean of consciousness and uniting together in various and sundry ways, create the finite realities.

20
The ocean is a direct symbol of the infinite consciousness, which is none other than
iva. As intimated above, the symbol is, moreover, apt to connote the dimension of
energy, motion and vibration that characterizes consciousness in aivism. Similarly,
the symbol of the ocean is used in Sufism as a suggestive pointer to the Divine
Essence in its limitlessness. Thus, Ibn Arabs prayer Enter me, O Lord, into the
deep of the Ocean of Thine Infinite Oneness! is, as Martin Lings has indicated, one
among many instances of a reference to the ocean which is mentioned again and
again in the treatises of the Sufis. 43 For Ibn Arab, the knowledge of God, like the
knowledge of self with which it is intimately connected, is identified as an ocean
without shore since there is no end to knowledge of God who is infinite reality. 44
As for Rm, in conformity with his approach of the Divine as Love, he identifies the
latter with an ocean whose depths cannot be plumbed. 45 It is quite clear that the
choice of this symbol is already indicative of perspectives that are particularly
attuned to a focus on the boundless and creative infinity of the Ultimate on the one
hand, and on the participation of the waves into this divine ocean on the other
hand, thereby suggesting the not unreal aspect of the former.
Reality as Creative Freedom.
It has been repeatedly asserted by scholars that Kashmiri aivite
metaphysics and mysticism, by contrast with Advaita Vednta, is primarily focused
on the dynamic and active dimensions of Absolute Consciousness, i.e. Will, or icch,
and Action, or kriy. These characters of the Absolute derive from ivas primary
understanding as utter freedom. The iva Stras identify absolute freedom as the
nature of iva par excellence:
Though Highest iva has infinite number of other attributes, such as eternity,
all-pervasiveness, formlessness etc., yet because eternity etc. are possible
elsewhere also, here it is intended to show the predominance of absolute
freedom which is not possible in any other being. 46

43

Martin Lings, What is Sufism? University of California Press, 1975, 11.


Futht al-makkiyya, II. 121-25, in William Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge, Albany : State
University of New York Press, 1989, 345.
45
Mathnawi, V 2731-32, in William Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love, State University of New York Press,
1983, 195.
46
iva Stras The Yoga of Supreme Identity, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979, 7.
44

21
In other words, the Supreme Liberty of the Absolute Consciousness is the essence of
this Consciousness. 47 In this metaphysical context, freedom involves two main
aspects, which are lack of constraint on the one hand, and infinite creativity on the
other hand. The first character implies that there is nothing external to iva that
could either limit, compel or contain Him in any way, which ultimately means that
everything is iva.48 This is the doctrine known in India as bhsavda, or the thesis
of limited manifestation, following which limited entities themselves are
delimitations of the limitless consciousness of iva. The second aspect, which is in
fact intimately connected to the first, points to the dynamic and productive nature of
the Absolute that aivism always envisages as ever flowing in an unending
multiplicity of new forms. This is the doctrine of svtantryavda, the thesis of selfdependency, according to which the intrinsic power of the Ultimate is the utterly
free energy of conscious manifestation. Manifestation is in the nature of Supreme
Consciousness, and this principle, when fully understood, should silence any
question as to the why of existence and its myriad of forms and contents. 49 This is
so because, in essence, the realm of finite reality is none other than iva himself, the
Supreme Consciousness, that both manifests and binds itself through its aktic
vibration and projections. In the aivite perspective, everything is pure
Consciousness or Cit. There is not an ounce of existence, on whatever level of being,
which is not ivas consciousness. Everything is consciousness, and therefore
everything is. Relative beings are, and they are as limitations of the Supreme
47

(The Absolute) is called Mahevara because of its absolute sovereignty of Will, sva-tantrat or
svtantrya. This absolute Sovereignty or Free Will is not a blind force but the svabhva (own being) of the
Universal Consciousness (Cit). Pratyabhijhrdayam-The Secret of Self-Recognition, Jaideva Singh,
Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2003, 16.
48
Just as every drop of water comes to rest in the ocean, so all acts and cognitions [come to rest] in the
Great Lord, the ocean of consciousness. Even a little water on the ground drunk by the suns rays goes, as
rain, to the great ocean. Similarly all knowledge and action in the universe merge in the ocean of iva
either spontaneously and evidently (sphutam), by itself or [indirectly] through a series of other
[processes]. Abhinavagupta, Malini, in Mark S.G. Dyczkowski, The Doctrine of Vibration. An Analysis of
the Doctrines and Practices of Kashmir Shaivism, Albany: State University of New York, 1987, 71.
49
Here it may be asked Why does the Self manifest these bhsas [limited manifestations] Abhinava
answers this question by saying that the nature of a thing cannot be questioned. It is absurd to ask why fire
burns. To burn is the very nature of fire and so to manifest without what lies within is the very nature of the
Self. It is natural for consciousness to assume a variety of forms. Kanti Chandra Pandey, AbhinavaguptaAn Historical and Philosophical Study, Varanasi: Chaukhamba Amarabharati Prakashan, Fourth Edition,
2006, 335.

22
Consciousness. In this sense, iva is both absolute and relative, and He, in fact,
transcends the two categories of absoluteness and relativity. It is clear that the
aivite emphasis lies on the not unreal dimension of the relative realm inasmuch
as it is none other than the unbound, infinite domain of Consciousness and, as such,
gives potential access to the latter.
This dynamic and creative process through which the Absolute
Consciousness outpours into multiplicity is highlighted in the central teaching of the
intrinsic union of iva and akti. While iva is pure Consciousness (citi) and Light
(praka), akti can be characterized as the intrinsic and efficient power of Selfrevelation of iva through which he manifests, supports and reabsorbs the realm of
manifestation. In this sense, akti is none other than Svtantrya, or the intrinsic
energy of iva.50 By contrast with any dualistic understanding of akti, such as in the
Nyya, aivism emphasizes the intrinsic unity of being and its power, the relationship
between the two being akin to the indissociable unity between fire and its power to
burn.51 As such akti is the inner, dynamic reality of iva, and their intimate unity is
more powerfully asserted as we consider the essence of the Ultimate, while their
latent duality, although more and more perceptible as we descend the stages of the
limitations of Consciousness by and through manifestation, is nevertheless ever
transcended by ivas sovereign Infinity and unending ability to affirm Himself in
and through the negations of Himself. As Paul Eduardo Muller-Ortega puts it, (iva)
is always the third element that transcends, undercuts, and in the end, unifies all
possible oppositions. 52 To this could be added that He is the third because He is the
first and because He is essentially none other than the second. In other words, iva
always reconciles all oppositions because He is, with and through akti, the very
productive source from which they emerge and into which they flow.

50

For non-dualist Kashmir aivites (), the higher Brahman is already full of inner potencies and powers
(akti ) and is evolving into the multitude of the created universe through a series of self-transformations
(parinma). Natalia Isaeyeva, From Early Vedanta to Kashmir Shaivism, Albany: State University of New
York Press, 1995, 134-5.
51
() The distinction between the power and its possessor is as imaginary as between the fire and its
power to burn. K.C. Pandey, Introduction, Doctrine of Divine Recognition of Abhinavagupta, volume II,
1986, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986, x.
52
The Triadic Heart of iva, 94.

23
In Kashmiri aivism, akti is the principle of universal relativity, since it is
through Her that everything is brought into existence. By contrast with the Advaitin
My, akti is not ontologically ambiguous nor deficient although She manifests on
a variety of degrees, but rather powerfully and creatively productive. As such she is
less a negation of iva, as My would be one of tman, than a sort of inner
dimension of iva that actualizes and exteriorizes His freedom to be all that He can
be, that is everything. This being said, while being eminently affirmative and
dynamic, there is somehow a vantage point from which akti could be considered
as a kind of negation of iva. This somewhat negative aspect of akti appears
inasmuch as iva being infinite and undivided Reality, she cannot but appear in
some respects and on some levels as the principle that brings out the finite and
discrete realities that delimit and divide the ivaic plenitude. In that sense akti is
within iva the seed of the principle of negation, limitation and division that allows
for the unfolding or outpouring of ivas infinite nature on the level of finite realities.
However, aivism is not intent on attributing this negativity to akti herself, but
rather to the lower ranges of the process she triggers. Thus, akti is first and
foremost the principle through which the nature of iva as infinite reality and
sovereign power is affirmed. In fact, when iva is approached as Emptiness, akti
will be deemed to express Divine Fullness. 53 On that account, iva being
characterized as nyat, like an empty sky in which the colors of the dawn are
shimmering, akti will be the fullness of these colors:
The [dawn] sky, though one, appears radiant white, red and blue, and the
clouds accordingly seem various; so pure, free consciousness shines
brilliantly with its countless forms, though they are nothing at all.54
Here, Emptiness is like the reverse side of Fullness, if one may say so, or the
silvering void of the mirror in which Fullness manifests its wealth of reality: it is the

53

akti represents the all-encompassing fullness (prnat) of the absolute, the ever-shifting power of
awareness actively manifesting as the Circle of Totality (vivacakra). iva is the Void (nyat) of absolute
consciousness its supportless (nirlamba) and thought-free (nirvikalpa) nature. Integral and free, iva, the
abode of the Void, dissolves everything into Himself and brings all things nto being. Mark S.G.
Dyczkowski, The Doctrine of Vibration An Analysis of the Doctrines a nd Practices of Kashmir
Shaivism, Albany: State University of New York, 1987, 119.
54
Mlinvijayavrtika, 1/949 in The Doctrine of Vibration, 119.

24
metaphysical ambience of universal exteriorization. It stands under Fullness as
an infinite Sub-stance that ever transcends the flow of delimitations.
As principle of projection and manifestation, akti needs be considered on a
plurality of levels. Indeed, as we will further suggest, the capacity to consider the
projection of Consciousness on a multiplicity of degrees can be deemed to be one of
the hallmarks of metaphysical perspectives that emphasize the not unreal
character of relative phenomena, among which aivism and the Sufi doctrine of
Unity rank eminently. Thus, Abhinavaguptas foremost disciple, Ksemarja,
distinguishes three levels of akti, which are Parakti, Parparakti and
Aparakti, or Supreme, Intermediate and Inferior akti. These three levels subsume
no less than thirty-four degrees of projection of Consciousness, or tattvas, from iva
Himself as pure I to prthiv, or earth, the utmost limit of condensation and
materialization of consciousness.
The Supreme akti, Parakti, while pertaining to abheda or non-difference,
also refers to the level of Pure Consciousness that is already the seed of the process
of production; it is, among other possible characterisations, the level of vimara.
Jaideva Singh notes that the term vimara implies through its root the meaning of
touching, and through its prefix a reference to the mind, probably through the
implications of negation, discrimination but also intensification.55 It is the free and
conscious self-determination of Absolute Consciousness. Vimara refers to the
emergence of a state of Self-Awareness within the Absolute Consciousness Itself.56
It is in fact none other than svtantrya or utter freedom of manifestation, and this
freedom manifests itself through a sort of doubling awareness of oneself that is at
the same time source of differenciation and manifestation. This emergence of

55

VimaraVi+mr. The root mr means to touch. Vimr means to touch mentally. It is a highly technical
term of this system. Paramaiva, the ultimate reality is not only praka or luminous consciousness, but
also Vimara i.e. consciousness of its consciousness. Vimara is Self-consciousness or pure I-consciousness
of the highest Reality. Jadeva Singh in Pratyabhijhrdayam , 125. K.C. Pandey characterizes praka
as pure receptive consciousness and Vimara as determinate reactive awareness. Doctrine of Divine
Recognition of Abhinavagupta, xiv.
56
The word vimara, () when used with reference to the Universal Self, stands for that power which
gives rise to self-consciousness, will, knowledge and action in succession. Kanti Chandra Pandey,
Abhinavagupta-An Historical and Philosophical Study, Varanasi: Chaukhamba Amarabharati Prakashan,
Fourth Edition, 2006, 327.

25
vimara is described by Abhinavagupta as having four stages, which could be
symbolized by the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 0. 57 There is first an intrinsic move to
differentiate the other from within the self, secondly a re-affirmation of the self in
contradistinction with the other, then a unification of the two, and a final
reabsorption of their union within the Infinite Self. The selfsame Consciousness is
therefore affirmed in and through negation, and reaffirmed further in and through
the transcending of the unity of affirmation and negation. This parsakti is identified
by Abhinavagupta to the pronoun I because it is the one and only supreme SelfConsciousness that affirms Itself through the myriad of productions,
transformations and reintegrations through which It proceeds. As such, parsakti is
that which makes everything real, or not unreal. The centrality of parsakti means
that aivism is always inclined to approach phenomena as not unreal, precisely
because they are produced by her ontological energy, which is none other than
ivas. Hence, Parsakti is in fact identified by Abhinavagupta with the couple ivaakti which is, in this case, considered as an intrinsic bi-unity of I-consciousness,
and not as a duality. As a linguistic expansion of this principle, Abhinavagupta
considers the iva-akti Supreme Consciousness as being comprised of I-ness --or
Aham, and expansion of I-ness --or A-ha-m, in the sense that it contains the first
Sanskrit letter, A, symbolizing iva, the last letter, H, symbolizing akti, and their
passion expressed by the totality of the alphabet that joins them together. 58
At a second stage, that of parparsakti, we enter the realm of that which
could be most satisfactorily refered to as relativity, both in the sense of a field that
takes us away from pure Consciousness, and more specifically in that the
relationship between subject and object, unity and diversity, is most emphatically
present therein; this is the domain of bhedbheda, or identity and difference. It is
on this level that the Unity of Consciousnes and the multiplicity of its productions
are as it were meeting in the confrontation of Consciousness and its objects, the
57

The self-referential capacity of consciousness is united with all things. From within its very self, this
capacity of consciousness differentiates the other, and from the other it actualizes itself again, It then
unifies both of them, the self and the other, and having unified them, it submerges them both back into
itself. 1:205 in The Triadic Heart of Shiva, 96.
58
Abhinavagupta, Partrik-VivaranaThe secret of Tantric Mysticism, translated by Jaideva Singh and
edited by Bettina Baumer, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000, 127.

26
latter still being endowed, however, with the Light of the former. In this connection,
Abhinavagupta associates the realm of parparsakti with the pronoun thou and
with akti (inasmuch as she can be distinguished from iva) because it is the domain
of correlates, as well as the field of cross-relations between subject and object,
unity and diversity, pure consciousness and its productions. The aivite sage also
associates this intermediary level with the first, second and third degrees of
consciousness below the Supreme bi-unity of iva and akti, that is Sadiva (the
revealer, by contrast with Mahevara, i.e. the Supreme who conceals), vara (the
creator who introduces a slight gap in non-difference), and uddhavidya (pure
knowledge of equilibrium). This ontological zone of contact, junction and relative
equilibrium is also, by the same token, one of ambiguity, and therefore a site of
potential bifurcation. What Mark Dyczkowski calls the middle level of unity-indifference is the critical parting point between the recognition of the one pure
Consciousness in and through the diversity of its manifestations, and the deadly
submission to their binding limitations. At this stage, the polarity I-thou reveals
ontological division without for that matter ever essentially severing the unity and
integrity of ivas Supreme Consciousness. Parpar means both identity and
difference in the sense of bheda (difference) and abedha (non-difference) being in
equilibrium, or one and diverse at the same time. It is therefore at this intermediary
point of junction and separation-- that a contact with Supreme Consciousness from
the vantage-point of multiplicity can be established, or conversely it may be the
channel through which unity may be overwhelmed by diversity. In other words it is
at this juncture that the potentiality of liberation and that of alienation and
perdition are both most affirmed. 59 Therein lies, in other words a precarious
balance between the subject and the object or rather the other subject, thou-inwardness and outwardness, the number two referring in this case to a relatedness
that provides one with the possibility of experiencing both terms within the context
of an underlying unity of consciousness. In the thou of parparakti the I of
59

If through this power the yogi realizes the oneness of consciousness and its manifestations, he is
elevated, but if he fails to do so, this same power throws him down. Thus the Intermediate power plays a
dual role by illumining both the pure Path to liberation and the Impure Path of bondage. Doctrine of
Vibration, 114.

27
Supreme Consciousness is still at hand, as it were, since akti can be recognized as
the other side of the same subject, a side that also shares in the same
consciousness.
On the third level of projection of akti, or aparakti, we move forward or
downward from the realm of duality in unity to that of a multiplicity increasingly
abstracted from unity. It is the realm of difference and distinction, or bheda. It
ranges over 29 tattvas or degrees of aktic projection, the highest source of which is
My, or more exactly Mahmy. With the latter we enter the domain of bheda or
difference, or at least its emergence (the latter being associated with Mahmy,
and the former with My). This is the level of maximal objectification, and thereby
diversified exteriorization, of akti. It is the realm of multiplicity, fragmentation and
knots where the underlying unity of Consciousness has become most difficult to
perceive and realize. The relative balance between I and thou is broken as the
scales are tilted on the side of objectification. Abhinavagupta relates this level of
akti to nara, that is empirical and phenomenal reality, and to the third personal
pronoun he. Here the emphasis is on the multiplicity of empirical experience, the
focus of consciousness being brought down from unity into diversity and
multiplicity. Aparakti takes us down from the recognition of the I in the thou to
a lower degree at which consciousness is not recognized in alterity but simply
apprehended and treated as a mere object. It is important and instructive to note
that Kashmiri aivism makes use of the concept of my to refer primarily to a
lower dimension of akti, at the degree of bheda or difference, where the pole object
has taken precedence over the pole subject, or the domain of the insensible that lie
on the outer edges of Consciousness has obfuscated, as it were, the Light of
Consciousness. This teaching is made explicit in Abhinavaguptas PartrikVivarana, a source in which the sixth and seventh tattvas are associated with My.60
This is a way to suggest a distinction between akti as such and My, thereby
emphasizing the positive function of the former. Along different and seemingly
diverging lines, the iva Stra considers My in three different aspects or levels,

60

Partrik-Vivarana, 127-8.

28
which are My akti, My Tattva and My Granthi: the first is the freedom of
consciousness that manifests ivas nature, the second is the objective limitation and the
fragmentation that is inherent to the process of this manifestation, while the third is the
coming into contact of the two in and through which My functions as a principle of
bondage by confusing the two levels of the free Supreme Consciousness and objective
fragmentation. However close this latter confusion comes to the Advaitin concept of
superimposition upon tman, it is most significant to note that the iva Stra considers
that My can and in fact must be purified by the knowledge of iva consciousness: in
other words, the matter is not so much to dispel My as to cleanse it by reintregating
into its highest aspect as akti. At any rate, whether My is identified with the lowest
degrees of aktic projection and its bheda aspect as if to preserve the positive function of
akti, or it is conceived as being susceptible to be purified through a sort of reintegration
into its aktic roots, it is clear in either way that Kashmiri aivism is intent on
emphasizing the not unreal aspect of aktic projections and productions.
While the above lines have outlined the various degrees upon which akti
manifests, fragments, limits and reabsorbs consciousness, it must be added that the
various aktic ontological degrees, although delineating in one sense a decrease in
consciousness, as illustrated by the series of descending tattvas, need be integrated
in order to account for the full spectrum of the unfolding of iva-akti, and therefore
the whole range of reality. It must be so since there is ultimately and essentially,
indeed really, not any gap in the unity of Consciousness that is iva. akti does not
lessen the plenitude of iva, it manifests it. Accordingly, the three planes of akti
that we have sketched above, i.e. supreme, intermediary and lower, encompass and
express the integrality of ivas nature. This ontological totality is moreover
mirrored in realizational perfection, in the sense that the supreme spiritual maturity
and utmost inner deliverance lies in the recognition of the essential unity of all the
moments of the unfolding of akti within ivas underlying consciousness. As Mark
Dyczkowski puts it:

29
The harmonious union (smarasya) of these three planes are Bhairavas (iva)
Supreme glory, the radiance of the fullness of His power (prnaakti) which fills
the entire universe.61
The vertical projection of akti is also the key to the reintegration of delimited
consciousness into the One.
Aside from these vertical degrees of manifestation, projection, contraction,
fragmentation and limitation, akti must also be considered in its various modes,
among which most important ones the tradition mentions caitanya, sphuratt,
spanda, mahsatt and parvk.62 In itself the absolute Consciousness is
apprehended as Light (praka) in the sense of being the substratum and the
condition of possibility of everything. Without praka there would not be a
metaphysical context for reality, if one may say so. Absolute Consciousness keeps
reality alighted at every new instant through its aktic energy by the power of citi
or caitanya. 63 The way in which Supreme Consciousness is understood to project
her power in unfolding the manifold existence is sometimes compared to reflections
on a screen or a mirror. In the second stra of Ksemarajas Pratyabhijhrdayam we
read:
By the power of her own will (alone), she (citi) unfolds the universe upon her
own screen (i.e. in herself as the basis of the universe.) 64
The commentary of the same stra indicates that Citi unfolds the universe like a
city in a mirror, which though non-different from it appears as different. Citi is the
very reality, the very being that underlies all manifestation, and from within which
all manifestation spring forth. As for mahsatt, which is none other than Citi in its
aspect of infinite wealth of being, it has been translated as absolute possibility of
being, or literally great possibility of being.65 It is the metaphysical equivalent of
the Supreme Freedom of iva, or the All-Possibility that is his infinite nature. Closer
61

The Doctrine of Vibration, 116.


Pancey, Abhinavagupta, 329.
63
Citi refers to universal consciousness as a whole whereas caitanya tends to denote its pure,
unfragmented, state. Cf. Pratyabhijhrdayam-The Secret of Self-Recognition, Jaideva Singh, Delhi:
Motilal Banarsidass, 2003, 59.
64
Pratyabhijhrdayam, 51.
65
Lin Ma, Heidegger on East-West Dialogue: Anticipating the Event, New York: Routledge, 2008, 163.
62

30
to the extrinsic effects of this nature, sphuratt is the radiance of the worldproducing energy of akti. Jaideva Singh translates this term as throb-like gleam of
the absolute Fredom of the Divine bringing about the world-process. 66 It refers to
the radiating projection of akti as manifested in objective forms and subjective
senses, alike the innumerable rays of the Sun of Being. As such, sphuratt refers to a
sort of oscillation or quivering of light, an immovable movement in and by which
the light of consciousness is propagated from the conscious Subject to its
objectifications.67 Notwithstanding the importance of the three aforementioned
characterizations of the I-Consciousness, the two most representative aspects, or
modes of manifestation, of akti in Tantric aivism are no doubt spanda and
parvk, or pulsation and vibration, and Supreme Word or Speech. It belongs to
spanda and parvk to differentiate most clearly the aivite perspective from other
Hindu perspectives such as Advaita. These two concepts bring to the fore the
centrality of the rhythmic, pulsating and vibrating energy of reality and
consciousness in aivism, as well as the parallel aivite emphasis on the sound
centered, linguistic and mantric dimension of akti. The concepts of pulsation and
vibration (spanda) express a sense of continuity in discontinuity, a kind of rhythmic
alternation that is the very life of the Absolute. The Infinite and finite realities are
linked in a series of expansions and contractions the essential continuity of which is
to be grasped through and in its apparent discontinuity. The Tantric emphasis is on
succession as the alternation of manifestation and re-absorption. In its origin, the
vibration of the Absolute is none other than the disturbance of an equilibrium that
results in opposite motions towards manifestation and reintegration. 68 In a sense,
relativity is the very pulsation of the Absolute: it is not only the exteriorization,
fragmentation and ultimately objectification of Consciousness, it is also the very
motion through which Consciousness is realized both in a centrifugal and
centripetal way. Relativity is dynamic motion, and the latter is like the rhythm of the
66

iva Stras, 262.


Cf. Raffaele Torella, in The varapratyabhijkrik of Utpaladeva with the Authors Vritti, Delhi:
Motilal Banarsidass, 2003, 121.
68
The absolute oscillates between a passion (rga) to create and dispassion (virga) from the created.
The Doctrine of Vibration, 41.
67

31
Absolute: hence aivisms thrust in celebrating the totality of the cycle of expansion
and contraction. By contrast with Advaita and Mdhyamaka there is a strong
emphasis on levels of succession and propagation, degrees of projection and
continuity. If relativity is primarily considered as not unreal it is because the
contraction is no less real than the expansion, the manifestation no less important
than the reintegration. The dynamic nature of relativity stems from its being the
result of a disequibrium inherent to the nature of the Absolute. However, this
disequilibrium is not as much a lack as it is a fullness: it is an intrinsic tendency to
radiate and vibrate, a tendency to be one and other, unity and diversity.69 If
equibrium is conceived as a static unity without productive energy, then the
Absolute Consciousness can be described as ontological disequilibrium. To speak of
disequilibrium amounts here to perceive the root of diversity within unity as selfconsciousness. It goes without saying that the disequilibrum in question is in fact,
from another point of view, part of a greater equilibrium that has to do with the ebb
and flow or the pulsation of reality at large. In another sense, one could also refer to
this creative fullnesss as to a delicate, ever mobile equilibrium between subjective
consciousness and its objectification. The importance and centrality of the parvk,
or Supreme Word or Speech, in aivism pertains to this inherent exteriorization and
objectification which is none other than the very freedom of the Absolute:
Consciousness has as its essential nature reflective awareness
(pratyavamara); it is the supreme Word (parvk) that arises freely. It is
freedom in the absolute sense, the sovereignty (aivaryam) of the supreme Self.70
Divine Speech is both internal and external: the latter is obvious since the Word is
manifested outwardly, but the former is also a central tenet of Kashmiri aivism
precisely because there is no consciousness that is not a priori language. The
articulation of Divine Speech is already present ab initio in the Supreme

69

In Partriik-laghuvtti, Abhinavagupta, contrasting his views with those of Vednta, opposes the
latters state of repose of brahman-tman to the productive agitation of Bhairava-iva: According to
us, however, there occurs, beyond that, Bhairava, who manifests the entire universe by means of his
activity of churning that state of repose. Mueller-Ortega, 176
70
varapratyabhijkrik, Torella, 120.

32
Consciousness but it is so in a compressed way (sahtarpa). 71 The Absolute
Consciousness is never in a state of non-awareness of itself and therefore in a sense
never in a state of non-utterance, albeit non-articulated. Relativity as utterance
and projection is already present in Absolute Consciousness, hence its not nonreal ontological status since non-being cannot be part of Being. The Supreme is
both Consciousness and Speech, parvk, in its most essential, intrinsic ipseity. 72
Once exteriorized, fragmented and objectified into signifiers and signified Speech
becomes, or reveals itself, as the ontological alphabet of universal reality. This is
the concept of mtk, the divine matrix of all phonemic manifestations, but also, and
by the same token, of all ontological emanations.73 The projection or emanation of the
energies of parvk into letters and sounds is closely dependent upon its triadic
division into Will, Knowledge and Action, or icch, jna and kriy. These three
aspects are respectively connected with akti, Sadiva and vara who are, as we
may recall, the three levels stemming from the bi-unity of iva-akti and preceding
the level of My. 74 Below the level of the distinction without separation
characteristic of this Triad, the manifestation and objectification of Consciousness
appears like a garland of letters and sounds that constitutes the emanation of the
worlds. These energies of emanation and manifestation are at the same time
energies of reintegration in the form of the mantra. The highest source of these
energies of Consciousness is none other, in fact, than the supreme mantra, parvk
itself. Hence, any mantra is ultimately the manifestation of parvk, or in Lyne
Bansat-Boudons words, the mantra is not a simple formula for ritual usage, but
represents ultimate reality itself. 75 It represents reality in the strong sense of

71

See Utpaladeva, Les stances sur la reconnaissance du Seigneur avec leur glose,
varapratyabhijkrik, introduction, translation and commentary by David Dubois, Paris: LHarmattan,
2010, 78.
72
Being essentially reflective awareness (pratyavamara), consciousness (citi) is represented also as
Supreme Speech (). Lyne Bansat-Boudon, An Introduction to Tantric Philosophy-The
Paramrthasra of Abhinavagupta with the Commentary of Yogarja, Routledge: London and New York,
2011, 63.
73
The name mtk () connotes not only the mother of the words, but also of the worlds, inasmuch as
the multitude of words entails the multitude of objects by them denoted. Lyne Bansat-Boudon, An
Introduction to Tantric Philosophy, note 443, 107.
74
varapratyabhijkrik, Torella, xvii.
75
An Introduction to Tantric Philosophy, 50.

33
making it present, because it contains it. The mantra is like the central energetic
substance that flows from the Self or the I-Consciousness. 76 It is the world as
reality, or the reality of the world, which amounts to saying that it is a most direct
aktic manifestation, or indeed akti herself. Hence, its capacity of projection and
its power of reintegration are one. The mantra is none other than the focal vibration
of Consciousness and, as such, the source and the end of the cycle of manifestation,
and likewise the origin and the goal of the spiritual path. As Consciousness unfolds
its Self-Awareness, the bi-unity of signifier and signified, or manifesting subject
and manifested object, tends to be cut asunder and open wider and wider, thus
entailing a greater and greater objectification, without however altering in the least
the essential unity of ivas I-Consciousness. The dichotomy between words and
things is the final product of this emanation. In the mantra, however, the synthetic
unity of signifier and signified is re-affirmed in such a way as to give access to the
unicity of pure Consciousness. As Mark Dyczkowski puts it, the language of mantras
is not concerned with external objects and it is directed inward, deriving its
energy from the supreme power of consciousness into which it ultimately
involutes. 77 As a foremost means of spiritual realization, the mantra allows aivite
practitioners to be reabsorbed, together with the world that surrounds them, into
the pure Subject, in a non-dualistic and non-objectified state of being. This being so,
the mantra is like the symbol, as well as the ontological and soteriological evidence,
of the not unreal nature of the non-Ultimate. Indeed, its liberating, realizational,
power is based on this non-unreality, without which mantric exteriorization
would be powerless to achieve the reintegrative goal of the path, the end of the
sadhana. Such are the means and the goal of aivism: to realize the world of
appearances in the sense of giving it back its full reality as modification of
Supreme Consciousness-- whereas, by contrast, Mdhyamaka Buddhism derealizes the world of phenomena by undoing the perception of the latter as a set of
self-existent substances. Similarly, while Advaita emphasizes discrimination, or
76

This I-feeling is the stage of great power, for all mantras arise from and come to rest in it (). The
Secret of Self-Recognition, Jaideva Singh, 110.
77
The Doctrine of Vibration, 200.

34
separation and discontinuity, as a way to free oneself from the lures of my as
superimposition upon Reality, the strong aivite emphasis on the power of the
mantra as the productive and reintegrative vibration of iva-akti is in keeping
with its concentration on the creative and dynamic unity of Consciousness.
No reality but the Reality.
The Sufi doctrine of the Unity of Being (wahdat al-wujd) presents a
number of central commonalities with Kashmiri aivism, the most evident of which
are perhaps no better suggested than by a single quote and commentary of Ibn
Arab unexpectedly gleaned in a note from David Dubois edition of Utpaladevas
varapratyabhijkrik:
There is only one Essence and one Reality. This reality appears as Ilh
(God) in a certain respect and as abd (servant) and khalq (creature) in
another respect. 78
The unicity and diversification of Absolute Consciousness that lies at the heart of
both perspectives could not be more plainly affirmed. However, this self-same
affirmation unfolds in contexts and with emphases that are significantly different.
While aivism emphasizes Freedom as the chief characterization of the Absolute,
and considers the manifestation of this Freedom within and through the bounds of
limitations, Sufism stresses the Necessity of the Absolute, or the intrinsic unity of its
Essence and its Being, and envisages the non-Ultimate by contrast in terms of mere
ontological possibilities. Moreover, by contrast with aivism, the main matter in
Sufism is not as much the manifestation of the productive energy of the IConsciousness into and through the manifold, as it is the relationship between
Divine Unity and the world of multiplicity and creation. The world of Islam is
entirely dominated by the metaphysical and spiritual imperative of
Divine Unity. It is also, and this is less often stressed, a world in which the
importance of the multiplicity of creatures and phenomena is paramount. Such a
diversity ranges, in the Qurn, from the multiple signs, or yt, on the horizon of
the cosmos and the soul, but also in the many verses that form the texture of the
78

Les Stances sur la Reconnaissace du Seigneur, p 232-3. The Spiritual Writings of Amir Abd al-Kader,
edited by Michel Chodkiewicz, State University of New York Press, 1982, 17.

35
Book, to the enumerations and pairs that characterizes its content, including the
Names of God and the alternations of the masculine and the feminine. It could be
said that doctrinally and spiritually Sufism is a way to account for and realize Unity
into multiplicity. This also means that, on the basis of the principle of essential Unity
that has been mentioned above, there could not be an absolute chasm between the
One and the many. In other words the not unreal nature of the many, or the
relative realm, pertains to its being indissociably connected with the Real. The
way this connection occurs will be described in the following pages. However,
before proceeding with our analyses of this connectinon, we must readily
acknowledge that Sufism is a diverse set of phenomena, be it doctrinally or
spiritually. Some forms of Sufism, and some particular statements within others,
tend to lay emphasis on a way of perceiving and realizing the Real that strikes more
harmonic chords with Shankarian Advaita than the teachings upon which we have
focused in this essay. 79 It is enough to consider the following passage from Ibn
Arab to realize to what extent the discriminative perspective of Advaita and its
focus on the pure Subject can find a striking echo in some expressions of Sufism:
Naught is except the Essence, which is Elevated in Itself, its elevation being
unrelated to any other () Thus, in a certain sense, it may be said that He is
not He and you are not you. 80
Be it as it may, it is important to remember, in order to understand the foundations
of the wahdat al-wujd, that the central formulation of Islam is the testimony of
faith, the shahdah, and particularly its first half that states l ilha illAllh or no
divinity if not the Divinity. This formula is, first of all, the expression of the Muslim
creed, and a most direct affirmation of its monotheistic emphasis. Beyond this first
and evident meaning of the shahdah however, there has developed since the start
of Islam modes of understanding of this formulation that reach the most consistent
and significant metaphysical meaning of the doctrine of Unity, in a way that
transcends, without abolishing it, the ordinary understanding of tawhd as
enunciating the reality of one God as opposed to many. It needs be stressed that this
79

See for example the remarkable Paths to Transcendence According to Shankara, Ibn Arabi and Meister
Eckhart by Reza Shah-Kazemi, World Wisdom, 2006, for a further exploration of these harmonics.
80
The Wisdom of Holiness in the Word of Enoch, The Bezels of Wisdom, Paulist Press, 1980, 85.

36
ultimate metaphysical meaning of the shahdah is not the mere theoretical
production of speculative reason, but that it is above all the doctrinal outcome of the
spiritual assimilation of the principles of the Qurn. In other words, the fact that the
tenets of the wahdt al-wujd may be unfathomable, or even anathema, to most
Muslims, does not mean that they should be considered as external borrowings a priori
foreign to Islam. Quite to the contrary, they constitute the doctrinal crystallizations of an
interiorization of Islam in the most metaphysically profound, consistent and fundamental
way. These interpretations of the shahdah, most often associated to Sufism, present
us with a metaphysical account of the relationship between the Absolute and the
relative that is strewn with metaphysical paradox. The crux of this metaphysical
understanding of the shahdah lies in the definition of Allh as the Reality, or the
Real al-Haqq. This means that the word God does not only refer to the Supreme
Divinity but also, and consequently, to the Real as such, Wujd. In other words,
Sufism has tended to derive two consequences from its consistent consideration of
God as the Real : --first, Reality cannot be predicated to anything besides God, --and
two, everything that is participates in one degree or another, in one mode or
another, in Gods only Reality. The term wujd, which is most often translated by
being or existence, is akin to the Arabic root WJD which denotes finding and knowing
about. Wujd as that which may be found and known about can refer to at least
three different realities: it may first refer to the Divine Reality whose Essence is Being; it
may secondly refer to any mawjd, any entity that is made to be, and it may finally
denote the reality that underlies all existents in a single unity, or wahdat al-wujd. The
shahdah implies both the first and third of these meanings. According to the first
acceptation it is metaphysically exclusive, while it is inclusive according to the third.
It exalts the Divine as that which lies above everything while being the essence of all
things; it posits God both in His transcendence and immanence. By virtue of
transcendence it affirms the nothingness of all else, while following its inclusive
immanence it affirms the non-unreality of creation. The originality of Islam,
however, is that the exclusive and inclusive aspects of Unity, as real as both are in
their own respective rights, are not situated on the same credal level, as it were.
While the exclusiveness, transcendence and incomparability of God as the Real, in

37
Arabic tanzh, directly pertains to the immediate, plain, binding, religious meaning
of the Revelation a meaning that is theoretically understood and accepted by all,
the full meaning of the immanence, analogy and inclusiveness, or tashbh, of the
Real as One without a second can only be alluded to esoterically as a subtle, delicate
and perplexing truth that presupposes a measure of metaphysical and spiritual
intuition without which it could be misunderstood, and either rejected or accepted
on the basis of erroneous assumptions. This being said, it is also true that, from the
point of view of Sufi gnosis, the recognition of Gods immanence through his signs
(yt) is more accessible to believers at large than is the pure transcendence of the
One, which remains for most an abstraction rather than being, as in the highest
forms of Sufi gnosis, a matter of inner realization. Now one of the keys in
understanding the wahdat al-wujd lies precisely in the metaphysical tension
between exclusive transcendence and inclusive immanence. Ibn Arabi expresses the
paradox of this tension in the following way:
The Elevated is one of Gods Beautiful Names; but above whom or what, since
only He exists ? () In relation to existence He is the very essence of existing
beings. Thus, in a certain sense, relative beings are elevated in themselves,
since (in truth) they are none other than He and His elevation is absolute and
not relative. This is because the (eternal) essences are immutable
unmanifest, knowing nothing of manifested existence, and they remain in
that state, despite all the multiplicity of manifested forms. The Essence is
Unique of the whole in the whole. 81
Although the immanence of the Real cannot be artificially severed from its
transcendence without distorting Ibn Arabis doctrine into a pantheistic confusion,
it is also true that this immanence refers to the essential nature of
the Real since it follows from the very affirmation of transcendence as predicated
upon otherness. Hence the question : The Elevated is one of Gods Beautiful
Names ; but above whom or what, since only He exists?
The interplay between transcendence and immanence, or exclusive Unicity
and inclusive Unity is no better expressed as in Ibn Arabs doctrine of the
permanent essences or permanent entities, ayn thbita. According to this
81

Ibn Arabi, The Wisdom of Holiness in the Word of Enoch, Bezels of Wisdom, edit. R.W.J. Austin,
Paulist Press, 1980, 85.

38
doctrine, everything that exists is a priori a possible entity in Gods pre-eternity. It
is only through Gods existentiation that possible entities come to be actualized in
the world of creation. In God, or in Gods knowledge, entities are both
metaphysically real and inexistent. In creation by contrast, entities are existent
but ultimately unreal. By reality is meant here identity with or participation into
Reality, by existence is intended ek-sistere, that is standing out from the Source
of Being and being projected into the world of creation. The paradoxical ontological
status of existents between essential non-existence and non-real existence is
refered to in another suggestive way when saying that the possible thing is that
reality whose relationship to existence and non-existence is equal. 82 According to
Ibn Arab, to say that a possible entity is existent without qualifying this existence
by inexistence is like mistaking it for the Real, i.e. God Himself, while to affirm that it
is inexistent without qualifying it with existence amounts to make it impossible.
Entities have therefore two sides, each of which is like a sort of negation of the
other, while they are of course one and the same in the last analysis. Their
existence in the cosmos is their non-being in God, and their being in God is
their non-existence. With respect to the former, it is not that an existent in this
world ceases to be a possibility in God when it is existentiated, since this would
absurdly make a possible impossible, but it means that its existence is pure
nothingness in relation to the act of God which has clothed it in the robe of
existence through Himself, or in relation to the Divine Name which has brought it
into existence. As for the latter, it means that there is no room in God for other than
God, and therefore no existence of entities. The non-existence of entities is their
reality in God since it is God, whereas their existence in the world is not real in and
of itself since it is none other than the manifestation of the very Being and Qualities
of God through and in them. 83 In this connection Ibn Arab refers to the
phenomena of the world as places of manifestation, mahar, of the Divine Being
and Qualities. A mahar is a place where God appears because God makes it appear

82

The Sufi Path of Knowledge Ibn al-Arabis Metaphysics of Imagination, SUNY, 1989, Press 82.
In the last analysis we see only the properties of the divine names, which are the qualities and attributes
intrinsic to Being. Chittick, Sufi Path of Knowledge, 80.
83

39
through its existentiating act. In a sense there is a sort of reciprocity between God
and the mahar. The latter is actualized by Gods creative act from its state of mere
possibility, while the Divine Being is made manifest through its receptable, or place,
of manifestation. A ponderous consequence of this is that the ontological status and
salvific virtue of the phenomena of the world depends on whether they are
considered, and one may even say experienced, as places of manifestation of God
or as mere phenomena as such. In his Niche of Light, the Mishkat al-Anwr, Ghazal
whose perspective includes in his most esoteric treatises very penetrating insights
into the tawhidic concept of relativity-- refers to these two aspects of creatures as
follow:
Everything is perishing except His face [28:88] [It is} not that each thing is
perishing at one time or at other times, but that it is perishing from eternity
without beginning to eternity without end. It can only be so conceived since,
when the essence of anything other than He is considered in respect of its
own essence, it is sheer nonexistence. But when it is viewed in respect of the
face to which existence flows forth from the First, the Real, then it is seen as
existing not in itself tbut through the face adjacent to its Giver of Existence.
Hence, the only existent is the Face of God. Each thing has two faces: a face
toward itself, and a face toward its Lord. Viewed in terms of the face of itself,
it is nonexistent; but viewed in terms of the Face of God, it exists. Hence
nothing exists but God and His Face. 84
As emphasized by Ghazl , the phenomenon considered in respect of its own
essence, () is sheer nonexistence. However, it is existent as it is facing toward
its Source or as it is the place of manifestation of the radiance, tajall, of Divine
Being. The Islamic rejection of any second to God leads, paradoxically, to an
emphasis on the not unreal aspect of what we have called relativity. This nonunreality of the non-Ultimate has already appeared in three ways. First of all,
relativity is not not real inasmuch as it is possible as ayn thbita in God. In
fact, it follows from the doctrine of ayn thbita that, according to Ibn Arab,
relative beings are elevated in themselves inasmuch as they are included in the
Real as immutable essences, or inasmuch as they are the Real. To put it in a
somewhat elliptical manner: other-than-God is in God, is God, and thereby not
84

Al-Ghazl, The Niche of Light, translated by David Buchman, Provo: Brigham Young University, 1998,
16-17.

40
unreal. Secondly, each relative reality is a site of Self-disclosure of the Real, to make
use of the English lexicon proposed by William Chittick. The not unreal nature of
the world of creation as theophany or tajall is therefore clearly asserted, as each
unit of reality in creation is none other than the revelatory appearance of Reality
Itself. The qualities, determinations and properties of the receptacles of the Real
cannot be unreal: if they were, they could not function as sites of manifestation of
Being. Another aspect of the same point is that each unit of receptivity to the One
Being is unified, i.e. made one by the One. Whereas the situation of the possible
entities in Gods knowledge pertains to the One as al-Ahad, and can be
mathematically symbolized by the multiplication of unity (1X1X1) that bars any
existential plurality, the reality of the existent entities relates to the One as alWhid, that unifies and constitutes each and every entity in differential oneness
in the form of the addition 1+1+1+1 85 The theophany of Unity in and through
unities is at the same time the very principle of the Unity of the Real in each and
every of the occurrences of unity, as well as through the whole spectrum of
multiple existence: hence the expression wahdat al-wujd. Interestingly, the aivite
notion of kula, or group, refers to a similar principle of unity in which because of
the presence of iva within each of these units, each part in some sense contains all
the other parts. 86 Thirdly, the not unreal nature of the non-Ultimate appears in
the very existentiation of the entities by the act of Being. Kun fa yakun, God says
Be! And it is. In other words the immanence of the Divine Being to the various
theophanies through His Act makes it impossible for one to consider them as nonbeing. This threefold not unreal aspect of the non-Ultimate amounts to a
recognition of the relative necessity, if one may so, of creation in relation to God.
The Amir Abd al-Qdir al-Jazir encapsulates this paradox of the necessity of the
contingent in the following lines:

85

For further developments on these various degrees and modes of theophany see Le Dieu-Un et les dieux
multiples in Henry Corbin, Le paradoxe du monothisme, Paris: LHerne, 1981, p21-23.
86
Mueller-Ortega, 59.

41
() Without God the creatures would not be existentiated (khalqun bi-l
haqqin l yjad) and without the creature, God would not be manifested
(haqqun bi-l khalqin l yazhar)87
The Islamic notion of theophany is thereby central to the articulation of the One and
the many. The latter are as many unveilings or disclosures of the limitless Real.
Sufism highlights the central function of these theophanic disclosures both from an
ontological and a soteriological or spiritual point-of-view. From the latter
perspective the doctrine of theophany teaches that there is no other way of knowing
and seeing God than through His theophanic manifestations, or through His
Aspects and Qualities as they are manifested in the world of creation. This is clearly
asserted by Ibn Arab when he writes that contemplation of the Reality without
formal support is not possible, since God, in His Essence, is far beyond all need of the
Cosmos. 88 This is a very significant point in Sufi doctrine as it emphasizes the
centrality of the recognition of immanence in the Way. In other words, there is no
contemplative way without a full recognition of the not unreal aspect of the world
of relativity. 89 Now, it must be added that this perspective does not exhaust the
cognitive possibilities envisaged by the wahdat al-wujd. For there is in fact a way in
which the Essence is known by Itself through or within the heart of the gnostic,
independently from external theophanic mediations, and it cannot be otherwise
since the Essence is ultimately all that is. It behooves the commentator to
distinguish, therefore, between an analytical, theophanic knowledge of the
Essence through the Names, and a synthetic Self-Knowledge of the Essence beyond
all theophanies. Although our thesis lays emphasis on the former, which we deem to
be more representative of Islamic spirituality at large, the significance of the latter
in some major sectors of Sufi metaphysics cannot be disregarded.

87

The Spiritual Writings of the Amir Abd al-Kader, edit. Michel Chodkiewicz, SUNY Press, 1982, 114.
Bezels of Wisdom, 275.
89
It must be noted that the reverse position can be at times asserted from another point of view, as when Jl
affirms that true knowledge is that of the Essence and not of Qualities, because in the former the servant
recognizes that the Divine Essence is his own essence, whereas there is no knowledge of the Qualities
since there is no means ever to exhaust (them.) Universal Man, 14. Obviously, Jl expresses here a pointof-view that is closer to Advaitas doctrine of tman by understanding immanence in a mostly inward way.
88

42
It flows from the previous considerations that, when discussing the nonUltimate, or relativity, in Sufism, it is important to differentiate between the two
concepts of m siw Allh, or other-than-God, that underscores the inclusive
exclusiveness of the Principle, and Divine Names or Qualities, Asm or Sift, that
tend to accentuate its theophanic inclusiveness. The m siw Allh is not, precisely
because only Allh is in a true sense. To grant reality to m siw Allh would amount
to severing the non-Ultimate from the Divine, and setting it into illusory otherness.
By contrast, as we have already suggested, if one were to look for non-unreality in
the relative realm one would have to consider, rather, the nature and function of the
Divine Names. The Names (Asm) do not only refer, here, to linguistic designations,
be they divinely revealed, but to the actual Qualities (Sift ) or Aspects of the Divine
Itself. 90 In fact, every existent being is a name of God,91 and when we capitalize the
substantive we are more specifically referring to a Name as Divine Quality, or
Aspect, such as the Compassionate (ar-Rahmn) or the Beautiful (al-Jaml.) Be that
as it may, the consideration of the ontological reality of the Names must be related
to their two aspects. On the one hand, the Names are none other than the Essence
inasmuch as they face the Essence. This also means, as indicated by Ibn Arab,
that each Name can be qualified by all other Names by virtue of its and their being
the Essence.92 On the other hand, the Names are relational and therefore
relative to creation. Names are relationships, they are not existing substances.
For any of them to become distinct from the others it needs to be brought into the
created realm through and in its relationship to its effects. The Amir Abd al-Qdir
refers to this process of distinction and manifestation through the analogy of colors
which were inexistent in the dark, and light which was a condition sine qua non of

90

Hence the distinction between Names and Names of the Names. The words which we call divine
names are not, strictly speaking the names themselves, but the names of the names (asm al-asm)
which have been revealed by God to His servants through the Koran and other scriptures. Sufi Path of
Knowledge, 34.
91
() Each thing other than God is a name of God. And since God is Being, every thing, every entity,
every possible being, is a name of Being. Chittick, Sufi Path of Knowledge, 94.
92
() Every Name implies the Essence as well as the particular aspect it enshrines. Therefore, insofar as
it implies the Essence Itself, it partakes of all the Names, whereas, as evincing the particular aspect [of the
Essence] it is distinct and unique [relatively]. The Bezels of Wisdom, edit. R.W.J. Austin, 88.

43
their existence. 93 The darkness of the Essence does include all the Names and
all the possible entities, but it is the Light of the Divine Existentiating Act that
makes them manifest in and through the shadows of the existents. As such the
Names are principles of non-unreality for relativity precisely because they are no
different from the Essence which is, and given that they have no meaning outside of
the entities of creation that they actualize.
The diversity of Names is not the only way in which the Essence and the
world of creation are as it were connected. Besides the horizontal range of
Divine Names and Aspects the relationship between Unity and multiplicity also
appears in the various Sufi versions of the doctrine of the Divine modes of Presence.
These Divine Presences (hadart) highlight the strong immanentist bent of Sufi
metaphysics in that they express the universal underlying Presence of the Divine,
while manifesting this Presence in a hierarchy of levels of being that encompasses
the whole ontological scale, from the Divine Essence to the material shell of the
universe. Sufi metaphysics differentiates the degrees of Divine Presence in a binary,
tertiary or --most often, quinary pattern. The binary model, which stems from
Quranic terminology, distinguishes between the world of mystery (lam alghayb) and the world of testimony (lam ash-shahdah). The first refers to
invisible Divine realities, and the second to manifestation. In his Mishkt al-Anwr,
Al-Ghazl refers to the first as the world of dominion (lam al-malakt) and to
the second as the world of sensation and visibility (lam al-hiss wa ash-shahdah).
The vertical descent of Divine Presence that links these two worlds is clearly
expressed in the following passage:
The visible world comes forth from the world of dominion just as the shadow
comes forth from the thing that throws it, the fruit comes forth from the tree,
and the effect comes forth from the secondary cause. The keys to knowledge
of effects are found only in their secondary causes. Hence, the visible world is
a similitude of the world of dominion. () 94

93

Spiritual Writings, 114.


Al-Ghazl, The Niche of Lights, translated by David Buchman, Brigham Young University Press, 1998,
12.
94

44
The world of sensation is a similitude (mithl) of the world of dominion. This means
that it is a reflection of the higher world, thereby testifying (shahdah) to the reality
of the latter. This binary layout of reality is the most elementary way of expressing
the relationship between the Divine and the world of creation. Other descriptions of
the levels of Divine Presence differentiate further by distinguishing within the
invisible world the domain of fire and that of light, which correspond
respectively the animic and imaginal level on the one hand, and the spiritual and
angelic level on the other hand. This distinction results in a tripartite universe that
encompasses, in ascending order, al-mulk or al-nast, al-malakt and al-jabart.95
But the most encompassing account of the degrees of Divine Presence is to be found
in the doctrine of the five Divine Presences (hadart). Al-Qshn, one of the
foremost commentators of Ibn Arab, enumerates these hadart as follows: the
Essence (dht),96 the Divinity as Qualities and Names (ulhyah), The plane of Divine
Acts (rubbyah), the level of imagination (khayl) and the level of physical and

95

Cf. for example, Ibn Ajba, Kitb Mirj al-Tashawwuf il Haqiq al-Tasawwuf, Edited and translated
into French by Jean-Louis Michon under the title LAscension du regard vers les ralits du Soufisme,
Albouraq, Paris 2010, 196.
96
Jl considers four degrees of manifestation of the Divine Essence (dht), which are Divinity (ulhiyah),
Unity (ahadiyah), Unicity (whidiyah) and Compassionate Beatitude (rahmniyah). The first two refer to
the Essence in Itself, so that it would be more accurate, it seems, to consider them as dimensions of the
Divine Reality, rather than degrees of its manifestation. Jl explains the distinction between Divinity and
Unity as follows:
The Unity is the most exclusive affirmation of the Essence for Itself, whereas the Quality of
Divinity is the sublime affirmation of the Essence for Itself and for other than Itself.
The distinction between Divinity and Unity corresponds to a recognition of the absolute and infinite
dimensions of the Essence. In other words, al- ahadiyah is exclusive of everything that is not the Essence.
The Name al-Ahad means the One and only One, as clearly expressed in the surah al-Ikhls:
Say: He is Allah, the One and Only;
Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;
He begetteth not, nor is He begotten;
And there is none like unto Him.
(112-1, Yusuf Ali)
This surah is the best Quranic expression of the exclusive transcendence of the Divine Essence that lies
beyond all relationship and comparability. However, the Essence is also infinitely inclusive as well as
absolutely exclusive. And it is this infinite dimension of the Divine Essence that is refered to by Jl as
ulhiyah. Divinity is the synthesis of all the Qualities and Names that are contained in the Essence.
The Unicity (whidiyah) and Compassionate Beatitude (rahmniyah), by contrast with the Unity and the
Divinity, relate to the manifestation of the Essence. The Unicity refers to the inherence of the Essence in all
the Names and Qualities while the Compassionate Beatitude dominates and penetrates the existences and
() Its principle rules them. The Universal Man, 31.

45
sensory existence (mushhadah).97 Other accounts are characterized by a slightly
different terminology. 98 It is so that the level of the pure Essence is often refered to
as al-Hht, from the pronoun Huwa, He, that points to the Essential Ipseity. The
plane of the Qualities is refered to as al-Lht, referring to Allh. The level of the
Divine Acts is al-Jabart, which has to do with Gods Power as expressed by His Acts
and his Angels, and is akin to the Divine Name al-Jabbr, which entails irresistible
compelling. The two lowest domains of manifestation of the Divine Presence are
that of imagination al-Malakt and that of the physical forms al-Nst: that is the
world of invisible animic realities, and that of corporeal existence. 99 Whatever
might be the specific distinctions and syntheses brought about in the various
versions of the metaphysical doctrine of the Divine Presences, what needs to be
stressed is that the doctrine itself highlights the non-unreality of the relative realm
of manifestation by affirming the ways in which the principle of Reality is present
and efficient throughout. Instead of emphasizing an exclusive discrimination
between the Real and the illusory these teachings suggest a gradually decreasing
but never annulled inherence of the Divine Presence throughout the totality of
existence, leaving thereby no entities or phenomena out of touch with Reality as it
were. Moreover, notwithstanding the discontinuity between their respective realms
the Divine Presences involve an essential continuity from the Divine Source
precisely by virtue of pertaining to Presence, and not to absence or ontological
chasm. This teaching is in keeping with the Quranic verses that stress the absence
of rent or rift in the fabric of creation: Thou (Muhammad) canst see no fault in
the Beneficent One's creation; then look again: Canst thou see any rifts? 100
Moreover, the Sufi emphasis on the immanence of the Divine finds another
important correlative manifestation in the significance of the Divine Name both as
ontological reality and as spiritual support of inner realization. Jl makes this point
97

Toshihiko Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism: a comparative study of key philosophical concepts, University of
California Press, 1983, 11.
98
Sometimes, the two supreme presences are considered to be the Divinity and the Universal Man (al-insn
al-kmil) . The latter stands for the Divine Essence, whereas the second represents the synthetic
quintessence of Divine Qualities and, thereby, the Prototype of creation.
99
Cf. for example, Titus Burckhardt, Introduction to Sufi Doctrine, World Wisdom, 2008, 71.
100
Quran 67:3, translation of Marmaduke Pickthall.

46
very emphatically by asserting the ontological identity of God and His Name on the
one hand,101 and consequently by underscoring, on the other hand, that this Name is
the only methodical means of access to the Divine. 102
As we have noted, the Kasmiri Shaivite and Sufi wahdat al-wujd share a
consideration of theophanic degrees in the manifestation of the Absolute within
and through the fold and garb of relativity. The main thrust of the aivite
perspective is the need to recognize the Supreme Consciousness of iva in all the
phenomena that surround us, and to enlarge our awareness, as it were, through
this recognition. There is nothing that is not iva, although our perception may not
be adequate to this supreme truth, which is why we must untie the knots of
limitations and contractions through and by our connection to the productive and
reintegrative energy of the akti, instead of identifying exclusively with particular
stases or moments in the unfolding of the Absolute. Similarly, there is nothing in
existence but God, or Laysa fil wujd illAllh to make use of Ghazls expression.
The Islamic sin of association or shirk is therefore ultimately identified with a
spiritual inability to recognize the pure Unicity of the Real, a failure to acknowledge
the most inclusive and consistent understanding of the first shahdah. It follows
from their strong emphasis on immanence that the perspectives of aivism and
Unity of Essence tend to underscore the ontological continuity between the various
degrees of reality, thereby pointing to the Supreme Reality by recognizing and
actualizing It within and through that which appears to be distinct from It. In other
words, the not unreal nature of the domain of other-than-the-Ultimate must
lead to the Ultimate since it is not in the last analysis other than It. This is in sharp
methodical contrast with those perspectives that accentuate the need for a
nullification, subrating, dissolving, or emptying of delimited phenomena and
experiences. It is also significant that in such metaphysical accounts of Reality as to
be found in the Kashmiri aivism and the wahdat al-wujd, the lower degrees of
101

() The perfection of the Named is eminently manifested by the fact that He is revealed by His
Name to he who ignores Him, so that the Name is to the Named that which the exterior (az-zhir) is to the
interior (al-btin) , and in this respect the Name is the Named Himself. Universal Man, 9.
102
() Each Name and each (Divine) Quality (is) contained in the Name Allh, (and) it follows that there
is no access to the knowledge of God except by way of this Name. Ibid

47
existence are as it were included in the higher ones. This is eminently true of the
Real Itself which, as Supreme Being and Consciousness, embraces within itself in
potentia all that is. The aivite image of the feathers and egg of the peacock 103 and
the Akbarian concept of the pre-existential possibilities express, in different ways,
this metaphysical inclusion of the relative into the Absolute. The common emphasis
on the methodical centrality of the mantra, or dhikr in Sufism, is akin to the
aforementioned metaphysical perspectives since it rests upon an essential identity
between the projection and power of the linguistic symbol and its divine matrix. It is
by virtue of this identity that relativity as a whole can be as it were reabsorbed into
its Source.
Transcendence and Immanence in the Economy of Reality
As we hope to have intimated throughout our essay beneath the surface of
our conceptual distinctions and classifications, none of the four metaphysical
perspectives that we have sketched can be deemed to be utterly exclusive of the
others, if only to the extent that they all tend to caution against any excessive
fixation on ideational phenomena. The fact is that none of the four perspectives in
question may be deemed to brand the relative realm with unqualified reality, no
more than any of them can be considered to deny its reality altogether.
In order to recapitulate the findings of our inquiry it might be pedagogically
useful, as well as epistemologically expedient, to situate the four metaphysical
traditions that we have analyzed as ranging from an emphasis on transcendence to
one on immanence, notwithstanding the unavoidable simplifications that such a
classification might entail. In such a contrasted spectrum of metaphysical vantage
points, Mdhyamaka Buddhism may appear as the doctrinal epitome of what could
be called paradoxically a transcendence of transcendence. This elliptical phrase
may be understood to mean that, by refusing to posit --at least affirmatively, a
reality that would transcend prattyasamutpda, Mdhyamaka Buddhism aims at
transcending, as it were, the perspective of transcendence, thereby ending up
103

The entire universe is already contained in the highest consciousness or the highest Self even as the
variegated plumage of the peacock is already contained in the plasma of its egg (mayrndarasanyyena). Jaideva Singh, in Pratyabhijhrdayam, 125.

48
placing the principle of emptiness as a reality immanent to everything that
neither is nor is not. In other words the backbone of this perspective lies in the
negation of the position of any Absolute, or any Self, that would transcend the realm
of co-dependent origination and make it henceforth impossible to reach Emptiness.
By contrast, Advaita may be deemed to highlight a perspective chiefly characterized
by a transcendence of immanence, meaning thereby that tman transcends
radically, and therefore annuls, the realm of My. In other words, the ordinary,
benighted, state of consciousness fails to recognize That which transcends the
realm of immediate and appearing existence. However, lest this Advaitin standpoint
be taken for a one-sided transcendentalist perspective, it bears remembering that
this annulment results in its turn in the highest affirmation of the immanence of the
Self, since there is nothing but tman. At any rate, in both Advaita and
Mdhyamaka, one is confronted with a clear-cut need to free oneself, through
transcendence, from the conditioning relativity of binding phenomena and states of
consciousness. In contradistinction with those perspectives, both Shaivism and
Sufism are by and large characterized by an attention to the theophanic and
soteriological sheaves of immanence. They perceive the latter as manifestations of
the Ultimate, and tend to make a maximal methodical and spiritual use of them.
Considering the Sufi perspective of wahdat al-wujd, we would be tempted to refer
to it as expressing, by and large, the point of view of the immanence of the
transcendent. Starting as it does from the Islamic premise of an exclusive Divine
Unity, abstraction and incomparability, or tanzh, the wahdat al-wujd cannot but
affirm the Divine Immanence that this exclusive Unity implies as its metaphysical
counterpart and corollary. No god but God or l ilaha illAllh signifies both the
exclusive transcendence of Allh and His immanence as az-Zhir, the Manifest or the
Outward. Finally, it would not be inaccurate to refer to Kashmiri aivism as to a
metaphysical and mystical perspective that focuses upon the dynamic, liberating
and universal immanence of the Immanent, if one may say so without apparent
redundancy. This means that aivism is intent on recognizing and freeing the
Divine Consciousness and Energy that pervades everything within and without,
which amounts in fact to teaching that this selfsame Consciousness frees us from its

49
delimitations through the very same delimitations that It has assumed. Here again,
however, it needs be kept in mind that this awareness of the immanence of Shiva is
ultimately realized and actualized into its full meaning in and through a realization
of his transcendence as pure Freedom. 104 The preceding lines must therefore lead
us to underscore in fine, lest our classification be overstated or unduly isolated from
its overall context, that the distinction between immanence and transcendence is
both provisional and relative. In Reality Itself, or for Consciousness Itself, as well as
in the heights of spiritual realization in which It manifests, there is neither
transcendence nor immanence, these notions presupposing otherness, hence
provisional duality.
Paradoxes of Metaphysical and Mystical Discourse
The quasi-totality of the considerations that precede are theoretical, and the
reader might be entitled to raise the question of the practical, spiritual, implications
of these metaphysical notions, given that mysticism is primarily a matter of
realized knowledge. Whatever might be the important differences in emphasis
among the various traditions of mysticism, it cannot escape us that the centrality
of the doctrine of universal metaphysical relativity in mystical theology stems
from a radical difference of accent in the way religion at large and mysticism as a
distinct current within religious traditions envisage the relationship between the
human and the Ultimate. Religions, and theology inasmuch as it is the rational and
apologetic mouthpiece of religion, deal primarily with the moral and social
conformity and alignment of the human with the Ultimate, both individually and
collectively. In other words, they aim at ordering, coordinating, and balancing the
various aspects of human existence on this earth in conformity with, or in view of,
the ultimate end of Reality. Religious teachings are therefore primarily symbolic,
in the sense of fostering a human approximation of the Above that might be
104

Finally, a word must be said of the proportional presence and absence of God as a present and
personal reality as we move from immanence to transcendence, or from an emphasis on relativity as not
unreal to one stressing its non-real aspect. From the apparent negation of God in Mdhyamaka to His
universally pervasive and polymorphic presence as embodied iva in aivism the extent to which God is
a determining spiritual reality varies proportionally to the degree of non-unreality conceded to the
relative realm. This should come as no surprise since God Himself is by definition relative, His notion
presupposing as it does a relationship with the world of creation and mankind.

50
conducive to a life according to transcendent principles. Paradoxically, and perhaps
unexpectedly given its affinities with symbolic expressions and its usual distance
from formalism and literalism, mysticism is more literal than religion in the sense
that it takes the highest teachings of religion at face value and lends them the most
powerfully consistent meaning and impact. This is why it asserts the exclusive
Reality of the Ultimate and the utter transcendence of this Reality vis--vis any
relationship that would essentially limit It or confine It within human mental
coagulations. Consequently mystical theologies refrain from considering any
existent aside from its utter dependence upon the Supreme, thereby intimating its
paradoxical, ambiguous, status as neither real nor unreal: Not real because only
the Real is real, but not unreal because everything is the Real.
As an initial response to the question raised at the beginning of these
conclusive remarks, it could be proposed that the metaphysical rigour of mystical
discourse cannot but translate into an exacting awareness of the Ultimate, thereby
informing the totality of the spiritual and moral components of the path. In this
respect, the mystical emphasis on the shimmering dimension of reality needs be
understood once again in contradistinction with the ordinary religious perspective.
As we have indicated above, the latter could be defined as a system of beliefs and
practices destined to orient mankind toward the Ultimate Reality of the creed.
This is the primary aspect of religious laws, codes and disciplines, without which
religion has no effectiveness in relation to the needs and limitations of the individual
as such, as well as to those of the collectivity. Such orientation presupposes a
conventional density and quasi-absoluteness of the means, in a way that is not
without opening the way to the possibility of a confusion between the finger and the
moon. By contrast, mystical teachings on relativity tend to go well beyong such
structuring and facilitating goals, while parrying any danger of the aforementioned
confusion of means and end, inasmuch as they aim at a radical modification of ones
perception of reality. A re-assessment of reality and its criteria of definition and
perception requires the acquisition of a mode of consciousness that fundamentally
alters and upsets the largely delusory balance of ones mental habits and existential
comfort.

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Thus, the methodological focus on the ontological paradoxes of the nonUltimate may be, on the part of sapiential and mystical teachings, a function of the
operative imperative of the metaphysical path as a way of life and an awakening of
consciousness. Even though the teachings concerning relativity are obviously every
bit as conceptual as the affirmative doctrine of the Real as such, they converge on a
conversion of outlook that is the very hallmark of sapiential and mystical teachings.
Arguably, such an operative priority comes more obviously to the fore in
Mdhyamaka than it does elsewhere, the general economy of the Buddhist tradition
being the most reticent of all vis--vis any conceptualization of the Ultimate.
Ngrjuna underlines the principle in question when specifying, in conclusion to his
Vigrahavyvartan that (dependent origination) is to be understood by each one by
himself according to this instruction and only some of it can be taught verbally.
105

This statement, which is echoed in various degrees and diverse modes in all

metaphysical and mystical teachings, highlights two core principles that provide us
with a suggestive coda. First of all, the understanding of the teachings is to be
effected by each one by himself. On this point, the Sufi tahqq as inward
verification or realization of tawhd provides a striking parallel to Ngrjunas
injunction inasmuch as it implies a spiritual actualization of enlightened
consciousness through a breaking of the shell of outward conceptual language. 106
Secondly, and concurrently, this call for inner and transformative understanding
presupposes a gap between theoretical knowledge and operative recognition. It is
in this gap that lies one of the most perplexing questions of metaphysical and
mystical expression, for only some of it can be taught verbally. The shimmering
ambiguity of existence or the non-Ultimate invites the question of the puzzling
status of any discourse giving access to it. The notion of upya remains a key symbol
105

The Dispeller of Disputes Ngrjunas Vigrahavyvartan, translation and commentary by Jan


Westerhoff, Oxford University Press, 2010, p.41. They are to be understood individually by each person,
following this direction (svayam adhigantavy anay di): a part [only] can be taught in words (kicic
chakya vacanenopdeum) The Dialectical Method of NgrjunaVigrahavyvartan, translated by
Kamaleswar Bhattacharya, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1998, p.137.
106
That belief which the commonalty of mankind learns is the mould of truth, not truth itself. Complete
gnosis is that the truths be uncovered from that mould, as a kernel is taken out of the husk. Al-Ghazzali,
On Knowing Yourself and God, translated from the Persian by Muhammad Nur Abdus Salam, Great Books
of the Islamic World, 2002, p.31.

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in this respect, one that allows us to account for the plurality of perspectives and degrees
of spiritual fruitfulness, as it embraces both epistemological power and ontological
emptiness in the shimmering language of mystical metaphysics.